- By Bernd Debussmann Jr
- BBC News
A plane carrying five Americans imprisoned for years in Iran has landed in the United States after a controversial prisoner transfer.
They landed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, south of Washington DC, on Tuesday morning.
They had earlier flown from Tehran to Doha where they transferred to a US-bound flight.
The last part of the deal was on Monday to send $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian cash – held in South Korea – to banks in Doha.
The released prisoners are dual Iranian-US citizens. All five Iranians were released from US custody, and three of the five decided not to return to Iran.
The plane, carrying five Americans, landed at Davison Army Airfield shortly before 05:30 local time (09:30 GMT).
Friends and family waved small American flags as the crew exited the plane.
“The dream is finally over,” said a relative of Siamak Namasi, one of the freed Americans. “We haven’t had this moment in over eight years. It’s incredible.”
“[It is] “This is the beginning of a very long road to recovery and healing,” a family representative said.
On board the plane were two family members, US Presidential Ambassador Roger Carstens and Deputy Special Envoy to Iran Abram Paley. Both met the released prisoners in Doha.
In brief remarks at Fort Belvoir, Mr Carstens encouraged ex-prisoners to take advantage of the “post-isolation support” offered by the US military and hoped they would “continue the fight to bring more Americans home”.
US officials have long claimed that the five prisoners held in Iran were wrongfully imprisoned for political gain.
Among the Americans are 51-year-old businessman Mr Namasi – who has spent almost eight years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison – as well as businessman Emmet Sharkey, 59, and 67-year-old environmentalist Morad Tahbas, who hold British citizenship.
Two other inmates did not want to be named.
Five Iranians freed as part of the deal were mostly imprisoned in the United States on charges of violating U.S. sanctions.
In a statement on Monday, US President Joe Biden welcomed the prisoner transfer and said Americans would be reunited with their loved ones “after enduring years of pain, uncertainty and suffering”.
At the same time, Mr Biden vowed to “continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region”.
“As we welcome our fellow citizens home, I would like to remind all Americans once again of the grave risks of traveling to Iran,” he added. “US passport holders should not travel there”.
The president’s comments came as the United States announced new sanctions targeting former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s intelligence ministry.
“I wouldn’t be free today if it wasn’t for all of you who never let the world forget me,” Siamak Namasi, one of the freed prisoners, said in a statement.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for being my voice when I couldn’t speak for myself and making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison,” she added. .
The Iranian funds, released as part of the deal, are owed to Tehran by South Korea for oil it bought before the Trump administration’s sanctions in 2019. The US has said the released funds can only be used for humanitarian purposes.
However, the refund has sparked controversy in the US and drawn sharp criticism from some of Mr Biden’s political opponents.
Many prominent Republicans expressed concern that Iran would use the money to support proxy groups in the Middle East.
The US government downplayed these concerns. Last week, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. Treasury Department has “strict oversight” of the money and that Washington “has the ability to control its use.”
A senior administration official told reporters that the United States would take steps to block the funds if Iran tried to divert the funds or use them for humanitarian purposes.