Iran-US Prisoner Swap: US Statements

On Sept. 18, 2023, U.S. officials welcomed Iran’s release of five imprisoned Americans as part of a prisoner swap. “Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi, and two citizens who wish to remain private will soon be reunited with their loved ones—after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering,” President Joe Biden said. He and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also thanked the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, for their help in mediating the swap. As part of the arrangement, the United States granted clemency to five Iranians and allowed the transfer of frozen Iranian oil revenues held in South Korea to restricted accounts in Qatar. The funds would only be used for purchasing humanitarian goods. The following are statements by U.S. officials.  


President Joe Biden

Statement on Sept. 18, 2023: “Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home.

“Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi, and two citizens who wish to remain private will soon be reunited with their loved ones—after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering.  I am grateful to our partners at home and abroad for their tireless efforts to help us achieve this outcome, including the Governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea.

Biden“I give special thanks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and to the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, both of whom helped facilitate this agreement over many months of difficult and principled American diplomacy.

“As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return. I call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers. Today, we are sanctioning former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the Levinson Act for their involvement in wrongful detentions.  And, we will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region.

“And as we welcome home our fellow citizens, I once more remind all Americans of the serious risks of traveling to Iran. American passport holders should not travel there. 

“The U.S. State Department has a longstanding travel warning that states: ‘Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.’ All Americans should heed those words and have no expectation that their release can be secured if they do not.

“Reuniting wrongfully detained Americans with their loved ones has been a priority for my Administration since day one. We have now brought home dozens of our fellow citizens, including from Afghanistan, Burma, Haiti, Russia, Rwanda, Venezuela, West Africa, and more locations globally. Still, too many remain unjustly held in Russia, Venezuela, Syria, and elsewhere around the world. We remain unflinching in our efforts to keep faith with them and their families—and we will not stop working until we bring home every American held hostage or wrongfully detained.”


Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Statement on Sept. 18, 2023: “Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and two other U.S. citizens who wish to remain private have departed Iran and are on their way back to the United States to be reunited with their families. They are joined by two of their relatives, also U.S. citizens, who had been prevented from leaving Iran until Today. Several of these individuals have spent years imprisoned as part of the Iranian regime’s cruel practice of wrongful detention, but today they are all returning home to their loved ones.

Blinken“From day one of this Administration, the President and I have made clear that we have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. Under President Biden’s leadership, we have now secured the release of more than 30 wrongfully detained Americans around the world. I am grateful to everyone from the State Department and across the government who worked tirelessly to bring home our U.S. citizens. We will not rest until we have brought home every wrongfully detained American.

“I also extend my thanks to the many partners who helped make this possible. I would like to express our deep appreciation for the indispensable role played by the State of Qatar over the last two years in mediating this arrangement. I extend our sincere thanks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and senior Qatari officials for their steadfast involvement and assistance in securing the release of U.S. citizens and establishing the Humanitarian Channel in Qatar for Iran to purchase humanitarian goods like food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products. The United States also expresses its deep appreciation to the Swiss Confederation for its tireless efforts to represent U.S. consular interests and its long-standing assistance as our protecting power in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In particular, we thank Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis for his personal commitment. We also thank the Republic of Korea for its close coordination and partnership, as well as Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said and the Sultanate of Oman, whose interventions were crucial to finalizing this arrangement, and the United Kingdom for their support.

“Today is also a solemn day. While we celebrate the release of these five U.S. citizens, we recognize that Bob Levinson still remains unaccounted for more than 16 years after his abduction from Kish Island, Iran. The Iranian regime has inflicted unimaginable pain on Bob’s family, and they have yet to account for his fate. We once again call upon the Iranian regime to give a full accounting of what happened to Bob Levinson. Bob’s legacy lives on in the Levinson Act, which bolsters our ability to bring home hostages and wrongfully detained U.S. nationals held overseas, and President Biden’s Executive Order 14078, which builds on the Levinson Act and reinforces the tools to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detention by other countries. We will use the Levinson Act and other tools to promote accountability for Iran and other regimes for the cruel practice of wrongful detention.

“Finally, I want to reiterate the State Department’s clear warning to U.S. citizens: do not travel to Iran. While this group of U.S. citizens has been released, there is no way to guarantee a similar result for other Americans who decide to travel to Iran despite the U.S. government’s longstanding warning against doing so. We continue to work with likeminded countries to deter future hostage-taking and hold Iran and other regimes accountable for such actions, including through actions we are taking today. U.S. citizens should not travel to Iran for any reason, and I call on any U.S. citizens in Iran to depart immediately.”


To the press on Sept. 18, 2023: “Good morning, everyone.  Just a few minutes ago, I had the great pleasure of speaking to seven Americans who are now free – free from their imprisonment or detention in Iran, out of Iran, out of prison, and now in Doha en route back to the United States to be reunited with their loved ones.  Five of the seven, of course, had been unjustly detained, imprisoned in Iran, some for years; two others had been prevented from leaving Iran.  I spoke to them after they landed in Doha.  I can tell you that it was for them, for me, an emotional conversation.

“It’s easy in the work that we do every day sometimes to get lost in the abstractions of foreign policy and relations with other countries, and forgetting the human element that’s at the heart of everything we do.  But today, their freedom, the freedom of these Americans for so long unjustly imprisoned and detained in Iran, means some pretty basic things.  It means that husbands and wives, fathers and children, grandparents, can hug each other again, can see each other again, can be with each other again.  So it’s a day that I’m grateful for.

“I want to thank a number of partners who’ve been so vital to helping us reach this day, particularly our partners in Oman, Switzerland, Qatar, the United Kingdom.  Each has played a very important role in enabling us to free our fellow citizens.  I’d also like to thank an extraordinary team at the State Department and throughout the United States Government that has been working to achieve this result for years now.

“As happy as we are at the freedom of our fellow citizens, we also are thinking today of Bob Levinson, who is not among them and who is presumed deceased.  Bob’s legacy, however, lives on.  It lives on powerfully in the Levinson Act, which has given us new and important tools to help crack down on and deter the practice of taking Americans unlawfully, to try to turn them into political pawns, and to abuse the international system in that way.

“One of the things that I heard in my conversation with our fellow citizens who are now free is their own determination, their own commitment, their own conviction, to continuing this work, to making sure that other Americans who are unjustly detained anywhere in the world come home.  To date, under this administration, we have now brought 30 Americans home from places around the world where they were being unjustly detained.  That work will continue.

“At the same time, we’re going to be working every single day to take steps to make this practice more and more difficult and more and more of a burden on those countries that engage in it.  And you’ll see in the days ahead here in New York, at the United Nations, our efforts to work with other countries to do just that.

“But for today, for this moment, it’s very good to be able to say that our fellow citizens are free after enduring something that I think it would be difficult for any of us to imagine; that their families will soon have them back among them; and that in this moment, at least, I have something very joyful to report.

“Finally, let me say that throughout this effort, throughout the work we’ve done to bring so many other Americans home, President Biden has demonstrated that he’s prepared to make tough and difficult decisions.  I have no higher priority – the President has no higher priority – than making sure that Americans who are unjustly detained anywhere can come home.  And we’ll continue that work in the days ahead.”

QUESTION: “Based on the successful detainee swap this week, will there be – are you expecting any indirect talks with the Iranians this week, any time soon?  And I’m not talking about direct talks but through intermediaries, or any sort of relaying messages.”

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  “Well, two things.  First, let me be very clear that this process and the engagements necessary to bring it about, the freedom of these unjustly detained Americans, has always been a separate track in our engagement or, for that matter, lack of engagement, with Iran.  So irrespective of what was happening or not happening, for example, in pursuing the effort to return to the nuclear agreement, we’ve been focused on working independently to bring these Americans home.

“So it doesn’t speak to anything else in the relationship.  We continue to be determined to take whatever step is necessary to deal with actions by Iran in a whole host of areas that are profoundly objectionable and that many other countries find objectionable.  At the same time, when it comes to perhaps the number one issue of concern, which is Iran’s nuclear program, we continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to get a sustainable, effective result, one that we had previously with the Iran nuclear agreement, and we’ll continue to see if there are opportunities for that.  In this moment, we’re not engaged on that, but we’ll see in the future if there are opportunities.  But President Biden has also been very clear that one way or another, he’s committed to ensuring that Iran never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

QUESTION: “Do you think there might be an opportunity this week, sir, the fact that —”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: “I wouldn’t anticipate anything this week.  We’re focused today on the fact that these Americans are now free after having endured something that I think most of us can’t possibly imagine.  In one case, one of our fellow Americans was in prison for eight years unjustly.  And that’s what we’re focused on for today.

QUESTION: “Today you had a meeting with the GCC foreign minister, and this meeting came after the announcement of that.  Did they raise concern regarding the release of frozen funds for the Iranian, and the possibility of using these funds to fund terrorism, whether in Lebanon, in Yemen, elsewhere?  And if you can elaborate a little bit regarding the mechanism on how you would supervise and monitor the use of these funds for humanitarian purposes too.”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: “In fact, when we – when we met with our GCC colleagues, our fellow Americans had not yet arrived in Doha, so we didn’t want to get ahead of that process.  Having said that, as I mentioned, two countries in particular played an absolutely vital role in helping to get us to this day, and that is Oman and Qatar.  As for the other members of the GCC, I’ve had occasion over the past many months to talk to them about the relationship with Iran – which is a challenge for each and every one of them, including for us – and to discuss in that context some of the efforts that we were making to bring home our wrongfully detained Americans.  And again, I don’t want to speak for them, but I think everyone is supportive of that effort.

“With regard to the resources, I think it’s very important to be very clear about exactly what this involved.  As you know, this involved the access by Iran to its own money, money that had accumulated in a Korean bank as the result of oil sales that Iran made, which were lawful at the time those sales were made.  And from day one, our sanctions have clearly – and indeed always – exempt the use of resources for humanitarian purposes, because our aim is not to harm the Iranian people.  Our problem, our profound problem, is with the Iranian regime.  So from day one, these Iranian monies that were in a Korean bank have always been available to Iran to use for humanitarian purposes.  But for a lot of technical reasons, they weren’t able to access those funds where they were, so the funds were moved to another bank where we have absolute oversight of how they – how they’re used, and they can only be used for humanitarian purposes.

“And we have absolute confidence in the process and the system that’s been set up.  By the way, the previous administration, the administration prior to ours, had set up a similar mechanism that was never used, but exactly for these kinds of purposes.  So we’re very confident that the funds, the Iranian funds that had been made more easily available to Iran as a result of the actions that we’ve taken, will be used exclusively for humanitarian purposes.  And we have the means and mechanisms to make sure that that happens.”


Senior White House Officials

Background press call on Sept. 17, 2023:

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “So, here’s what we anticipate the events to unfold over the next 24 hours: As early as 5:00 a.m. Eastern time — so, it’s about nine hours or so from now — seven Americans will board a Qatari plane and leave Iran for Doha, Qatar.  The Americans on the plane will be Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz, and two Americans who wish to remain private.  Also on the plane will be Effie Namazi, the mother of Siamak, and Vida Tahbaz, the wife of Morad.  And both have been previously unable to leave Iran.

“So, we are bringing home five American citizens who have been imprisoned — wrongfully imprisoned and two family members of those imprisoned who were banned from traveling.”

“In return for the safe return of our fellow American citizens, five Iranians will receive clemency. … These individuals have been charged or convicted with nonviolent crimes: Two of the five have been in prison and their sentences were about to expire — in one case, in less than 100 days from now; three are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted.  We anticipate that two of the Iranians who do not have legal status in the U.S. will return to Iran again through Doha, Qatar.”

“In connection with the exchange, we are also moving $6 billion in Iranian funds previously held in South Korea — in a restricted account in South Korea to a restricted account in Qatar, where they will be available for a limited — a very limited category of humanitarian transactions.  That is food, medicine, medical devices, and agricultural products only.

“And I wanted to dispel a few myths about what this entails — this transfer entails that has just continued to linger out there. 

“First, these are not taxpayer dollars.  This is not a payment of any kind.  No funds enter Iran ever, nor do any funds get paid to Iranian companies or entities. 

“The account in Korea is not a legally frozen account under our laws.  The funds there have been legally available for non-sanctionable trade, including under the last administration.  This goes on for some years. 

“At bottom, these are Iranian funds — payments made by South Korea to Iran for purchases of oil years ago, including during the last administration — moving from one restricted account in Korea to another restricted account in Qatar.  These funds will be available only for transactions for humanitarian goods with vetted third-party, non-Iranian vendors. 

“I just want to, kind of, just focus on this a little bit because the facts are important.  The key facts: These are funds that were legally available for non-sanctionable trade in South Korea and will be available for a similarly restricted category of humanitarian-only trade in Qatar.  And the funds will likely to be spent on individual humanitarian transactions probably over a period of years. 

“We are implementing this arrangement through the establishment of what we are calling “the humanitarian channel in Qatar.”  And the Treasury Department will have more information — a great deal of additional information on this tomorrow, including a description of its stringent due diligence and monitoring standards. 

“This channel is designed explicitly, again, to guard against money laundering, misuse of Asian and U.S. sanctions, and, as I stated, no money ever goes to Iran.  If Iran tries to divert the funds or use them for anything other than a limited humanitarian purpose as authorized, we’ll take action to lock up the funds.  And that is very clear from what Treasury will put out tomorrow. 

“So this humanitarian channel is consistent with U.S. government’s longstanding law and policy across administrations that U.S. sanctions do not preclude limited humanitarian transactions for food, agricultural products, medicine, and medical devices.  And that’s all that is at issue here. 

“A couple of other issues: As part of our action tomorrow, we are also issuing new sanctions under the Levinson Act, both against the Ministry of Intelligence and against Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their actions.  These are the second set of act sanctions, I believe, to be issued under the Levinson Act; they will not be the last.

“The United States will never give up on Bob Levinson’s case.  We call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson.  The Levinson family deserves answers, and we will continue to take action under the Levinson Act to impose costs on Iran. 

“This also applies to the Biden’s administration’s policy on travel to Iran.  To be blunt, no American should travel to Iran for any reason.  No American citizen or dual citizen — it doesn’t matter: Do not travel to Iran.  For dual citizens, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship.  As many of you know, they’re treated as a subject of Iranian law.  So, we are very clear, there’s just no basis for any American passport holder to travel to Iran.”

“Importantly, this deal does not change our relationship with Iran in any way.  Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism.  We will hold them accountable wherever possible.”

“On Friday, just 48 hours ago, the President spoke on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, and we rolled out nearly 30 new sanctions designations, including Press TV and the individuals and entities that contribute to the oppression of Iran’s people. 

“We have sanctioned more than 400 individuals and entities in more than 40 tranches of sanctions since the beginning of our administration.  We’re increasing our military posture in the region.  We have responded decisively to Iran’s attacks against our forces by Iran’s backed militia groups, including by conducting targeted responsive strikes in March of this year.  There have been no attacks in Syria in 6 months since that response, 13 months in Iraq. 

“Just by contrast, in early 2021, when our administration entered office, our personnel were under regular and ongoing attack by these Iranian-backed groups, and we have taken action to counter that and deter that.  And we’ll continue to do so.  

“Separately, we’ve increased our interdiction posture to deter weapons shipments into Yemen.  And with the diplomacy — U.S.-led diplomacy have secured what is now an 18-month period of calm in Yemen — the quietest period since the war began nearly a decade ago.”

“We’re also importantly united with our allies on Iran policy…. But we lead the charge — just for some examples — to have Iran removed from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.  Last week, 62 other nations joined us in calling out Iran’s lack of cooperation of the IAEA in Vienna.  And there’s more examples coming. 

“Needless to say, the United States will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapon, a policy we deliver on through diplomacy or other means, if necessary. 

“So, today and what we expect to transpire tomorrow, does not change our approach on any of this.  We are focused daily on a policy for the Middle East that combines deterrence with diplomacy to reduce risk of Iran’s aggression while deescalating conflicts through diplomacy wherever possible, and contributing and building a more stable, integrated, prosperous Middle East region. 

“But it goes without saying that when we have an opportunity to bring American citizens home, we do seek to seize it, and that’s what we’re doing here.”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “Tomorrow, we will announce a second set of sanctions under that very executive order against an entity and an individual in Iran previously or currently holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans.

“Those actors in Iran, like others against whom we have used this sanctions authority and against whom we will use it going forward, have tried to use Americans for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States, fundamentally treating human beings as — as pawns, as bargaining chips.  Those sorts of actions threaten the stability and integrity of the international political system and the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad.

“Specifically, we’ll be announcing sanctions on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security — MOIS.  The MOIS frequently holds and interrogates detainees in Evin Prison, in particular, which has a long history of human rights abuses, including extensive reports of torture.  So, MOIS is the entity.

“The U.S. government will also be sanctioning an individual — former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — for constant promotion of lies about Bob Levinson’s whereabouts that still persist to this day.

QUESTION: “When did the President receive this deal to make a decision on?  When did it reach his desk?  Will he call the families or — or the freed detainees tomorrow?  And, you know, given that we’ve seen iterations of this deal in the past, why do you think it was this time that it stuck?”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “This has been a — a process that has been going on for — a very difficult negotiation, really, over a period of years.

“When the opportunity came together after pretty principled, persistent diplomacy, a number of things, obviously, we completely flat-out rejected.  When the opportunity arose that we thought a deal that was very much in our interests, that’s when we chose to move forward.  But in terms of the timeline, everything else, I’m just not going to get into that here.”

QUESTION: “Is there any thinking within the Biden administration to use this moment to explore resuming the indirect talks with Iran to see if a deal can be struck in the future, may that be JCPOA or in any other way?  So, in that sense, do you expect to hold any indirect talks with them this week, in the coming months about Tehran restricting its nuclear program?”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “Absolutely not.  The indirect talks we have from time to time through the Omanis — I have to say, we are very grateful for the role that Oman has played in this role — particularly, the Sultan of Oman — and, as well, Qatar, which you’ll be hearing more about tomorrow.

“So, we do not close the door entirely to diplomacy.  But we approach diplomacy with principled standards.  And if we see an opportunity, we will explore it.  But right now, I have really nothing to talk about.”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “On the background diplomatic effort, look, Iran’s economy is in deep trouble.  They have come to us repeatedly through other countries, including Oman, with a sense of urgency to try to return to where we were last August. 

“We made very clear the world has changed significantly since last August and the chances for diplomacy in the current context of working are extremely slim.  We do never — we never close the door to it. 

“We’ve also made clear that so long as Iran is holding American citizens wrongfully detained in Evin Prison, that does not create a construct for diplomacy at all. 

“So, while I would not — I would not call this a confidence-building measure, I will say it does remove an obstacle that was certainly — certainly there. 

“But this — this deal was negotiated through Qatar.  It — it is, as these things always are, a fairly separate, independent process.  And when we saw an opportunity in which the — the arrangements that we had always said would be what we would need to move forward, when Iran agreed to that, we — we did decide to move forward.”

QUESTION: “Given Iran’s history over the past 44 years of taking Americans, do you have any confidence, any faith that this practice will end?  Or do you believe that this is a tactic that Iran will continue?

“Secondly, are all Americans and permanent residents now out of Iran or will be out of Iran in the next 24 hours? Third, do you think that the timing of this has anything to do with Raisi coming to the United Nations?

“And finally, what is next on your list of what you’d like to talk to about Iran specifically, whether it’s within the nuclear program or other regional issues of what its proxies are doing?”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “The fact that bad behavior might continue can’t and shouldn’t stop us from ending just torment for these five — really, seven Americans.  And we are very pleased to believe at least we’re on the brink of doing so.

“But the concern that the states will continue to use Americans and others as bargaining chips, as political pawns is precisely why this administration is investing so much in trying to roll back this practice globally through our leadership in that Canadian-led initiative I mentioned earlier to strengthen global norms; through our use of sanctions, including the types of sanctions we’ll be announcing tomorrow; and through the sort of warnings that we give Americans.

“And I will say that — that with this, all those designated under the statutory process as wrongfully detained in Iran will be coming out.

“Now, of course, there are Americans detained around the world in various countries whose cases are considered by the U.S. Department of State under the 11-factor test set out in the Levinson Act and, based on the information available, don’t receive that designation.

“But we will be very pleased to say that all those currently designated as wrongfully detained — all those Americans designated as wrongfully detained under the Levinson Act in Iran will be out, as — again, with the caveat you’ve heard from us both: assuming this all goes forward.”

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: “In terms of Raisi being in New York, I — you’d have to ask the Iranians. I highly doubt that has anything to do with it because we finalized this arrangement some time ago and have been working to implement it ever since.

“In terms of what we discuss with Iran, obviously, as I said, we are open to diplomacy on the nuclear side.  But we have many other tools at our disposal on that issue.  But we kind of have — kind of a, I think, a fairly broad array of options.

“But we do remain open to diplomacy.  And we are grateful for our regional partners in that regard.  And we also are focused, as I mentioned — I think we have a strong policy of deterrence in the region, but we’ve also been focused on using diplomacy to de-escalate conflicts wherever — wherever we can.

“I think Jake had a statement late last week noting that the Houthis have an official delegation in Saudi Arabia, as we speak right now, for the first time since that war began.  That is significant.  And we have made ending the war in Yemen a priority of our policy in the region from the first days of our administration.

“So, we have a lot of diplomacy going on in the region of multiple factors.  With the Iranians, it is primarily focused on the nuclear program.  I would just say that that’s a crisis we shouldn’t have.  The decision to get out of a deal that, whatever you might say about it, was at least keeping the program constrained — the last administration did — chose to get out of it without a plan for what came next.”