Authorities in Tehran have released four Iranian-American prisoners from Evin prison and placed them under house arrest, a lawyer for one of those held said on Thursday.
The four include businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Shargi, 58, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also has British citizenship. The fourth American citizen's identity has not been made public.
Jared Genser, a lawyer who represents Mr Namazi, said he hoped that the transfer to house arrest in a hotel was a step towards them eventually leaving Iran.
“While I hope this will be the first step to their ultimate release, this is at best the beginning of the end and nothing more. But there are simply no guarantees about what happens from here,” he said in a statement.
A fifth American, an unnamed woman whose detention was only recently made public, is already under house arrest.
Babak Namazi, Siamak's brother, said they would not rest until his brother and the other detained Americans were returned.
“We have suffered tremendously and indescribably for eight horrific years and wish only to be reunited again as a family,” Babak Namazi said in a press release.
Siamak Namazi has been held in Iran on espionage charges since October 2015. He has personally pleaded to President Biden to help secure his and his fellow Americans' release.
In March, he spoke by phone from inside Evin Prison to CNN, where he described his feelings of despair and asked for help from Washington.
The Namazi family's ordeal was not confined to Siamak. Baquer Namazi, Siamak and Babak's father, was arrested in 2016 after he had flown to Iran to help his son. The elder Mr Namazi was detained for years and was only allowed to leave Iran in October 2022.
Mr Shargi, a businessman from Washington, was jailed in October 2018 and Mr Tahbaz has been held since January 2018.
“We are encouraged by the development today on the conditions of our father and the other American hostages, but they are not free until they are home safely and reunited with their families,” said Tara Tahbaz, Mr Tahbaz's daughter.
They and Siamak Namazi were held on similar charges of espionage. The US government deemed their imprisonment as unjust and “wrongful” and has been working for their release for years.
Mr Genser said conditions at the hotel are expected “to be no worse” than those at Evin prison. This should mean they will be able to spend time together and make calls to family members, the press release said.
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The White House confirmed the release of the four Americans and said it “will not rest until they are all back home in the United States”.
“While we welcome the news of these individuals’ release from prison to house arrest, they should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
The National Security Council has characterised negotiations for the detainees' release as “delicate”.
The White House offered few details on the deal, but Iran confirmed the release was part of a prisoner exchange, state media reported, citing Iran's mission to the UN.
“Under the deal mediated by a third country, five Iranians jailed in the United States will be released and Iran's frozen funds in South Korea will be unblocked and transferred to Qatar,” state news agency Irna said.
The New York Times earlier reported that Washington had reached a deal that would eventually allow the detainees to leave Iran in exchange for about $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenue and the release of jailed Iranians.
That Washington and Tehran have got this far is “significant”, says Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.
“They have not been able to achieve any diplomatic breakthroughs with Iran in the past two and a half years,” Mr Vaez told The National.
“This could potentially open the door for more diplomatic engagement aimed at containing the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West.”
He cautioned, however, that a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, is unlikely.
“I don't believe that the restoration of the JCPOA is on the books in the next year and a half,” he said.
“It is too close to the US presidential elections for the Iranians to consider giving up their leverage and it's also for the same reason too close to the election for the Biden administration to be willing to turn this into a political football in an electoral campaign.”