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Iran released 5 American prisoners on Monday in a carefully negotiated deal with the Biden administration. The agreement involved unfreezing $6 billion of Iranian funds held in South Korea and a concurrent prisoner exchange.
The freed American citizens include businessman Siamak Namazi, conservationist Morad Tahbaz, and 3 unnamed individuals. They were swapped for 5 Iranians held on sanctions charges in the US, according to Iranian state media.
President Biden hailed the prisoner release as a rare diplomatic breakthrough. He thanked US allies Qatar and Oman for facilitating the complex negotiations.
However, Biden stressed this Deal doesn’t reflect warmer ties with Iran’s regime. He announced new sanctions on Iranian officials for “wrongful detentions”.
Years-Long Negotiations Led to Tit-For-Tat Prisoner Swap
The prisoner exchange came after painstaking indirect talks through intermediaries. The Biden administration resisted Iranian demands to unfreeze billions in oil revenues.
Qatar and Oman acted as mediators to bridge differences on terms. South Korea’s $6 billion debt payment to Iran enabled the deal.
Siamak Namazi was jailed in 2015 as Iran sought leverage in nuclear talks. Fellow prisoner Morad Tahbaz is an environmentalist. 3 others gained freedom too.
The 5 freed Iranians were arrested for sanctions busting. US prosecutors dropped charges to allow the swap. Iran coordinated their release with the Americans.
All prisoners will undergo medical checks. Namazi said he was overjoyed but felt guilty leaving others behind in Iran’s brutal prisons.
Unfreezing Funds Was Key to Ending Prisoner Impasse
Access to billions in blocked oil revenues ultimately clinched the agreement for Iran. South Korea owed the money for oil but couldn’t pay due to US nuclear sanctions.
The Biden administration initially resisted unfreezing Iranian assets overseas. But it relented to secure the prisoner release and build goodwill.
Qatar mediated the complex funds transfer. Iran received $6 billion from South Korea into an account in Doha. This unlocked the prisoner exchange.
Critics argue Biden gave Iran economic concessions and sanctions relief. But US officials say Iran’s funds were only unfrozen, not new money.
Families Hope Deal Leads to More Releases
Namazi’s family thanked the Biden administration for “bringing home our family”. They said years of agony are ending.
But they also highlighted the many unjustly jailed Americans excluded from the swap. They hope it’s a first step for more releases.
Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz also gained freedom. Their relatives expressed relief after tireless advocacy to free their loved ones.
Babak Namazi, brother of Siamak, said: “I hope this means that Iran has decided to resolve the remaining cases and we pray for the safe return of the remaining hostages.”
Biden Imposes New Sanctions Despite Prisoner Progress
While celebrating the prisoner release, President Biden underscored ongoing tensions with Iran’s regime.
He announced new sanctions on Iranian officials for “wrongful detentions”. This includes former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The US Treasury said those sanctioned were involved in denying prisoners due process and human rights violations.
Analysts see it as a signal from Biden that broader policy remains unchanged. It warns Americans against visiting Iran.
However, the prisoner swap shows engagement can yield outcomes when needed. Both sides gave ground for mutual benefit.
Cautious Optimism That Deal May Lead to US-Iran Thaw
Diplomatic analysts hope the agreement is an icebreaker between adversarial nations. It shows compromise is possible.
But significant obstacles remain to normalizing US-Iran relations in the near term. Decades of distrust pervade ties.
“This could be an important trust building measure between Washington and Tehran,” said Ali Vaez of International Crisis Group.
Hardliners hold sway on both sides. Yet skilled diplomacy secured this rare win-win exchange. It offers hope for now.