Five Americans freed from Iran arrive back in the U.S. after prisoner swap

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Family members embrace freed American Emad Shargi after he and four fellow detainees were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S and Iran, and arrived at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, U.S., September 19, 2023. 

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Five Americans who were released after being wrongfully imprisoned in Iran for years have arrived back on U.S. soil.

A plane carrying the five Americans and two of their relatives touched down at a military airfield near Washington, D.C. early Tuesday. They had flown from the Gulf state of Qatar, which helped facilitate the transfer.

The group were freed as part of a prisoner exchange agreement that allowed Tehran to access $6 billion in oil revenues frozen under U.S. sanctions and also saw five Iranian nationals released from U.S. custody.

U.S officials arrange a group photo after freed Americans Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi — as well as two returnees not yet named by the U.S. government — who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S and Iran, arrived at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, U.S., September 19, 2023. 

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The rare, high-stakes deal comes despite heightened tensions between the two countries over a range of issues including Iran’s uranium enrichment program and crackdown on internal dissent — the weekend marked a year since Mahsa Amini’s death sparked a wave of domestic unrest.

NBC News first reported on the prisoner swap negotiations in February. 

Siamak Namazi, 51, was imprisoned for almost eight years, the longest stretch of the five American prisoners. He was arrested in 2015 on charges of espionage and convicted in a trial that lasted a few hours.

Freed Americans Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi smile as U.S officials arrange a group photo after they and three others who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S and Iran, arrived at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, U.S., September 19, 2023. 

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Emad Shargi, 59, an Iranian-born businessman who moved to the U.S. as a young man, was arrested in 2018. Despite being released and cleared of all charges in 2019, Iranian authorities retained his passport, before he was charged again in 2020 and convicted of espionage charges without a trial.

A third former prisoner, Morad Tahbaz, 67, is an Iranian-American who also has British citizenship. Part of a group of environmental activists carrying out research on Iran’s endangered cheetah population, he was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2019.

The families of the two other former prisoners have requested that their identities remain private, U.S. officials said.

U.S officials arrange a group photo after freed Americans Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi — as well as two returnees not yet named by the U.S. government — who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S and Iran, arrived at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, U.S., September 19, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Human rights groups accuse Iran of charging the prisoners with espionage without any foundation — but Iran says they were treated in accordance with the law.

The deal comes as President Joe Biden and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will attend the annual gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly in New York later Tuesday.

Biden has come under criticism from Republicans for agreeing to a deal they say amounts to a “ransom” payment that will likely only encourage Tehran to imprison more foreigners. 

The administration has maintained that Iran will only be permitted to use the funds unblocked by the U.S. for medicine, food or other humanitarian purchases. 

But Raisi told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an exclusive interview that Tehran will decide how to spend the $6 billion. The money will be spent “wherever we need it,” he said.