In an unusual agreement between the longtime rivals, a US-bound aircraft carrying five Americans released by Iran departed Doha on Monday in exchange for five Iranians jailed in the US and the payment of $6 billion in Iranian assets.
US President Joe Biden issued a statement saying, “Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” just before the US captives descended the stairs of a Qatari flight in Doha to be greeted by US officials.
The US military will provide them with medical care in the United States, according to the White House, which confirmed that a jet carrying the five and two American family members who had previously left Tehran with them was on its way there.
Separately, Iran’s state-run Press TV said that two of the five Iranians who were being imprisoned by the United States on charges of committing crimes had arrived in Tehran. The report appeared to be a reference to their being given mercy.
It is unlikely that the other three will go back to Iran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in New York for the annual UN General Assembly. At the occasion he said, “This was purely a humanitarian action. It can certainly be a step based upon which in the future other humanitarian actions can be taken.”
The exchange’s potential for improving the several points of contention between the two countries—such as Iran’s nuclear programme, its backing of local Shi’ite militias, the deployment of American troops in the Gulf, and American sanctions against Iran—was unknown.
Since former US President Donald Trump failed on an agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme and reimposed US sanctions in 2018, relations between the United States and Iran, which have been enemies for more than 40 years, have been particularly tense.
The programme, according to Washington, may be intended to produce nuclear weapons, an objective Tehran rejects, which might pose a danger to Israel or the United States’ Gulf Arab allies.
On the nuclear problem, which he called “perhaps the number one issue of concern,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kept the door open to dialogue but signalled nothing was about to happen. “In this moment, we’re not engaged on that, but we’ll see in the future if there are opportunities,” he told reporters in New York.
Other experts also voiced their opinion on the subject. Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Henry Rome said, “The prisoner swap does likely pave the way for additional diplomacy around the nuclear program this fall, although the prospect for actually reaching a deal is very remote.”
Jon Alterman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies said, “Removing an irritant is different from adding a salve.”
Democratic presidential candidate for next year’s election Joe Biden imposed new U.S. sanctions on Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its intelligence ministry for “involvement in wrongful detentions” as a way to seem strong on Iran and maybe deflect Republican criticism.
In the statement, he thanked the countries of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea for their cooperation in arranging the releases and stated, “We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region.”
Because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic ties, Switzerland represents American interests in Tehran. Switzerland assisted with the flow of monies from South Korea to Qatar.