Ransom payment or skilled negotiating? How the US freed five captive Americans in Iran

Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz are embraced upon their arrival in Doha.
US citizens Siamak Namazi (C-with glasses) and Morad Tahbaz are greeted upon their arrival at the Doha International Airport in Doha on September 18, 2023. Five US detainees, three previously identified as Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Sharqi and two who wish to remain anonymous, released by Iran landed in Doha in a prisoner swap on September 18 after $6 billion in frozen funds were transferred to Iranian accounts in Qatar. (Photo by Karim JAAFAR / AFP) (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)

A Northeastern Middle East policy expert is hailing the prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran that saw five detained Americans released on Monday as a positive development in relations between the two nations — but with several asterisks.  

The five Americans were permitted to leave the country after being imprisoned in Evin Prison — Iran’s most notoriously brutal prison — in exchange for the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iran oil revenue, and the dismissal of federal charges against five Iranians accused of sanctions violations.

The successful negotiations, which took place quietly over the course of two years, signal tentative progress in relations, but come on the heels of more U.S.-imposed sanctions. It’s the second high-profile international prisoner swap in as many years, after the U.S. traded a notorious Russian arms dealer for WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was jailed in Russia, last year.

Headshot of Denis Sullivan.
Denis Sullivan, professor of political science and International Affairs. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It’s excellent news,” says Denis Sullivan, professor of political science and international affairs, and co-director of Middle East Center at Northeastern.

The U.S. has a long and troubled history brokering various deals with the Middle Eastern country — although there are many successes to date. Notable cases include the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 when Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and detained more than 50 Americans under former President Jimmy Carter’s watch, up through former President Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which offered billions of dollars in sanctions relief for cuts to Iran’s nuclear program.

“The main takeaway for me,” Sullivan continues, “is it just shows we can negotiate with Iran. [Ronald] Reagan did it; [Jimmy] Carter did it; [Barack] Obama did, and Biden is doing it in many ways to advance a bigger agenda, which is to get back to a nuclear deal with Iran.”

Sullivan underscored that because conditions inside the Iranian prison are so horrific — in the years after the Iranian Revolution, the overcrowding was so bad that prisoners had to take turns lying down to sleep, according to one account — the American homecoming is worth celebrating. It’s “a happy ending for these American citizens against the backdrop of the horror story that is using human beings as leverage,” he says.

“Unfortunately, that’s just what many countries around do,” Sullivan says.

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At the same time, Sullivan suggested that the timing of the release has raised some eyebrows, as it comes a year after 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the country’s “morality police.” Sullivan hints that the agreement may have been orchestrated by Tehran in such a way as to overshadow the one-year anniversary of Amini’s death, adding that he hopes the deal doesn’t divert attention away from ongoing human rights abuses in Iran. 

As for the $6 billion in oil funds, previously locked up under U.S. sanctions in South Korea, he says, “it’s a good chunk of change.”

“It’s a significant win for Iran, financially,” Sullivan says.

In recent days, Republicans criticized the deal, insisting it amounts to a “ransom payment,” despite the fact that the billions of dollars in oil revenues isn’t backed by U.S. taxpayers (it’s Iran’s money). Among the detractors was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who suggested that the agreement “will entice rogue regimes, like Iran, to take even more Americans hostage.”

To those comments and others, Sullivan says they miss the larger point.

“I think people should turn a deaf ear to those chants from the back benches — it’s just political rhetoric,” Sullivan says.

The Biden administration insists that Iran can only use the funds for humanitarian causes, such as food and medicine. The U.S. Treasury will reportedly oversee the transactions.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.