A U.S.-bound plane carrying five Americans freed by Iran left Doha on Monday as part of a prisoner swap for five Iranians held in the United States and the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds, marking a rare deal between the long-time antagonists.
“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement shortly before the U.S. detainees descended the stairs of a Qatari jet in Doha to be embraced by U.S. diplomats.
The White House confirmed a plane carrying the five, along with two U.S. family members who left Tehran with them earlier, was en route to the United States, where they were to be offered medical treatment by the U.S. military as they adjust to freedom.
Separately, Iran’s state-owned Press TV said the five Iranians held by the United States and charged with committing crimes had been freed, an apparent reference to their being granted clemency, and that two of them had landed in Tehran.
The other three are not expected to return to Iran.
“This was purely a humanitarian action,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said after arriving in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly. “It can certainly be a step based upon which in the future other humanitarian actions can be taken.”
It was unclear whether the exchange might bring progress on the many issues that divide the two nations, including Iran’s nuclear program, its support for regional Shi’ite militias, the presence of U.S. troops in the Gulf and U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Relations between the United States and Iran, adversaries for more than 40 years, have been especially bitter since former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 reneged on a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed U.S. sanctions.
Washington suspects the program may aim to develop nuclear weapons – an ambition Tehran denies – that could threaten Israel or U.S. Gulf Arab allies.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the door open to diplomacy on the nuclear file, which he described as “perhaps the number one issue of concern,” but suggested nothing was imminent.
“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.
U.S. analysts voiced skepticism that progress was likely soon on the nuclear or other issues.
“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,” said Henry Rome of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Removing an irritant is different from adding a salve,” said Jon Alterman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies.