Cartoon by Gary Varvel

Inside the Deal to Free 5 American Prisoners in Iran

U.S. negotiators say the release of the prisoners is proof that even fierce adversaries can sometimes find their way to an agreement. But the deal almost didn’t happen.

By Michael D. Shear and Farnaz Fassihi

The New York Times: The prisoner swap was all arranged, or so the American negotiators thought.

After years of painstaking negotiations with Iran, secretly mediated by Persian Gulf nations, top aides to President Biden had finally struck a deal on June 6 that would free four Americans held in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons. In exchange, the United States would unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue and drop charges against Iranians accused of violating U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. negotiators knew there could still be last-minute hiccups, but things were moving forward. The prison guards in Tehran rounded up the Americans, brought them to the warden’s office and told them to pack their belongings — their release was imminent. They should be ready to go home within three days.

But White House officials were about to receive some bad news. Just a day after the agreement was reached, they learned from the F.B.I. that Iran had seized another American citizen, a retired woman from California who was doing aid work in Afghanistan.

It was unclear then, and even now, whether the woman’s detention was a strategic decision or if she had simply gotten caught up in Iran’s web of security, a case of the country’s left hand not knowing what its right hand was doing.

Either way, the U.S. officials were livid. There was no way Mr. Biden could sign off on an agreement that would leave her behind. The woman from California had to be released, too.

The deal crumbled. And the prisoners, who by this point were expecting to go home any day, were crushed.

It would be weeks before U.S. officials, still working in secret, would get the talks back on track, with help from diplomats in Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

When Mr. Biden finally announced on Monday that the Americans — including the newly captured woman — were on their way home, it was the culmination of years of careful negotiations focused not only on freeing the prisoners, but also on efforts to defuse tensions with Iran and counter what the U.S. views as Tehran’s destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East.

“When all the pieces finally come into place, there’s a collective sigh of relief, but up until that moment we’re all holding our breath,” said Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser. “We don’t want the terrible ordeal these Americans are enduring to last a single day longer than it has to.”

The story of those negotiations was recounted by officials in the United States, Iran and Qatar; family members and lawyers for some of the prisoners; and representatives of other organizations familiar with the talks. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations about the prisoners.

The outcome, they said, is proof that even fierce adversaries can sometimes find their way to an agreement.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Nuclear talks stall

The work to bring home the Americans had begun early in 2021, just weeks after Mr. Biden took office.

Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz had been jailed on unsubstantiated charges of spying. They were held in Evin Prison, infamous for accusations of torture and a symbol of the regime’s authoritarian approach to justice.

Mr. Biden and his advisers were determined to get them out, somehow. For months, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken carried the names of the detainees in his pocket.

First though, the United States and Iran needed to find ways to talk about broader issues. Throughout 2021 and the first half of 2022, Washington and Tehran hoped that they could revive the Obama-era nuclear deal, which had limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Former President Donald J. Trump had abandoned the deal.

Now, U.S. and Iranian officials were engaged in indirect talks in Vienna. And on a separate track, the Biden administration pushed for a way to free the imprisoned Americans.

For months, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken carried the names of the detainees in his pocket to remind himself to free them.Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

But by August last year, those talks had completely broken down.

Iran was making demands about its nuclear program that the United States could not accept. It was rapidly increasing uranium enrichment to 20 percent, then 60 percent, stockpiling beyond levels approved in the now-defunct Obama deal. Iran’s top officials sided with Russia on its invasion of Ukraine, and reports surfaced of Iranian drones being sold to Russia and used to target civilians.

Behind the scenes, discussions about releasing the imprisoned Americans had become intertwined with the broader nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

To negotiators on both sides, it seemed clear that the United States would not approve a costly deal for the prisoners when the nuclear negotiations were falling apart.

“In the entire course of 2021 and for most of 2022, the U.S. seemed to prefer to wrap the detainee deal into the J.C.P.O.A.’s restoration,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director of the International Crisis Group, who was familiar with the negotiations from both the American and Iranian sides. “It was only late last year, when the window closed on nuclear diplomacy, that a stand-alone detainee deal was contemplated.”

Iran wanted to be able to access $6 billion in oil revenue that was sitting in accounts in South Korea, virtually unusable because of currency issues. Iran’s negotiators demanded the money be moved in a way they could use it.

The United States was insisting that money would have to be placed in restricted accounts, with controls that made it impossible to use for anything other than food, medicine, medical devices or agriculture. The Iranians rejected the proposal outright.

A month later, in mid-September, nationwide protests erupted across Iran in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the morality police. Iran’s government responded with brutal force, and scenes of young people being shot, killed, beaten and arrested dominated headlines about Iran >>>