Some experts believe the deal signifies an easing of tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Five American prisoners held in Iran flew out of Tehran on Monday officials said, as part of a deal that saw nearly $6 billion in Iranian assets unfrozen.
Despite the deal, tensions are almost certain to remain high between the US and Iran, which are locked in various disputes, including over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
The planned exchange has unfolded amid a major American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of US troops boarding and guarding commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.
Two people, including a senior Biden administration official, said that the prisoners left Tehran on Monday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the exchange was ongoing.
In addition to the five freed Americans, two US family members flew out, according to the Biden administration official.
Flight-tracking data showed a Qatar Airways flight take off from Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which has been used for exchanges in the past. Several of the former prisoners could be seen climbing the stairs to the flight in video released by Iranian media.
The plane was expected to land in Doha, Qatar. Meanwhile, Nour News, a website believed to be close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners had arrived in Doha for the swap.
Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said that the exchange would take place Monday after nearly $6 billion in once-frozen Iranian assets reached Qatar.
“Fortunately Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea were released and God willing today the assets will start to be fully controlled by the government and the nation,” Kanaani said.
“On the subject of the prisoner swap, it will happen today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the US,” he added. “Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the US side.”
The US citizens reportedly freed include businessmen Siamak Namazi, imprisoned for nearly eight years in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, and Emad Shargi, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British citizenship.
The deal was brokered by Doha, reportedly involving nine fraught rounds of talks.
Washington claims its citizens were behind bars due to baseless charges, believing Tehran wanted to use them as political leverage.
Iran's diplomatic spokesman Nasser Kanani told reporters in Teheran two of the Iranians released "will return to Iran, one will go to a third country where his family lives and the last two will stay" in the US.
The swap has courted controversy over what Tehran will do with the funds and whether Washington should engage with the regime.
Iran's security services brutally suppressed a protest movement last year, which was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.
Monday's prisoner swape was announced on 10 August, with the five US citizens transferred from prison to house arrest in advance earlier that month.
Freed businessman Namazi was arrested in Iran in 2015 and sentenced to ten years in prison in 2016 for espionage.
Iranian officials insist they will spend the unfrozen funds however they please. Yet sources involved in the deal claim the money will be tightly controlled.
Some experts say the agreement testifies to an easing of tensions between Iran and Washington, though the two remain at loggerheads over the Iranian nuclear issue.
European-led negotiations failed in 2022 to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, moribund since the US unilateral withdrawal in 2018 under President Donald Trump.
The Iranian regime is under increasing economic pressure, with its currency losing more than 90% of its value over the last decade, according to The Economist.