In the last few hours, as the United States approached a controversial but historic agreement to bring home five Americans considered wrongfully detained in IranIranian officials set up roadblocks, tried to force the U.S. government to make last-minute concessions and even halted the process minutes before detainees boarded a flight from Tehran.
CNN has learned new behind-the-scenes details about the past few days and the obstacles American diplomats had to overcome as they sought to ensure that a diplomatic breakthrough that had been years in the making did not unravel in the crucial final stages. Senior State Department officials spoke to CNN about what happened on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details.
According to officials, Acting US Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens arrived in Doha on Saturday afternoon to coordinate with Qatari and Swiss officials on logistics for the release. of the five American detainees and two of their family members, who anticipated it would take place on Monday.
The diplomatic relationship with Iran is incredibly tense, and although years of painstaking indirect negotiations had brought the process to an apparent goal, the Americans had to deal with last-minute efforts to stall and try to get more out of the United States, despite The two parties have an agreed upon agreement.
The Iranians even threatened not to include the five Americans in the release unless the United States did more, the officials told CNN.
But having come this far, the Americans made it clear that they would not return home without the five; It was a non-negotiable for the US and the Iranians relented.
“We held our line and the Iranians pulled back and we made it work,” said a senior State Department official.
US officials suggested that negotiators did not view these Iranian attempts as a significant threat that could sink the deal, but rather as part of a typical Tehran strategy.
“They’re always trying to put sand in the wheels, always trying to negotiate and trying to get more and more,” the official said. “We have taken a very firm line and a principled position, so we stood firm.”
Still, “every hour there was something new that the Iranians tried to delay or just be difficult for the sake of being difficult,” they added.
The Americans were confident that the deal itself was attractive enough that Iran would not withdraw and that it was strong enough that they could not renege on it and still get what they wanted. Under the agreement, 6 billion dollars in Iranian funds They were transferred from restricted accounts in South Korea to restricted accounts in Qatar to be used for humanitarian purchases, and the United States would release five Iranians from its custody.
The last of the Iranian funds arrived in bank accounts in Qatar on Monday, and the United States had coordinated with Qatari officials to notify Iran that the funds had arrived, which would then trigger a sequence of steps to lead to the release.
However, there was a delay because Iranian officials “could not find the head of the Central Bank to sign a letter that they had to transmit through their interagency to then authorize people to let them leave the hotel and go to the airport to raid the way for everything,” the senior State Department official told CNN.
But the money arrived and everything seemed settled. But nothing about this process was simple and even in the hours before the freed Americans boarded a Qatari plane from Iran to Doha, Iranian officials were still trying to cause delays, officials told CNN.
The Iranians tried to insist that everyone, freed prisoners and diplomats everywhere, have lunch at the Tehran airport before leaving. But Qatari officials, in a gentle diplomatic move, responded that they would be offended if everyone did not eat while aboard the Qatari plane and an agonizing final delay was avoided.
After clearing a series of final obstacles, the Qatari plane carrying Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi and two other released detainees whose names are not publicly known, as well as Namazi’s mother, Effie, and Tahbaz’s wife, Vida, took off from Tehran shortly before 9 a.m. ET on Monday.
When they landed in Doha, the Americans were greeted by Carstens and Paley, who gave them their own personal cell phones to call their relatives, whose numbers were already on the phones.
They also received a call from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with each of them individually for more than 10 minutes, according to the officials. Blinken said Monday that it was “an emotional conversation.”
The State Department, without offering too many details or attempting to give them too much hope, had advised family members late last week that they should consider traveling to the Washington, D.C., area. After that, they were in very regular contact with the families, and President Joe Biden called them Monday morning after their loved ones were released.
The department had solidified its plans to bring returned Americans to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, about 10 days before the release, another US official told CNN, and staff from the Post Isolation Support Activities (PISA) program told CNN. English) from the Department of Defense flew to be ready. help. All returning Americans agreed to participate in the program.
On Monday afternoon, shortly after 1 pm ET, the US plane carrying the seven Americans, Carstens, Paley and other US officials departed Doha en route to the United States. In an interview with “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday, Carstens said the flight home was “very emotional,” as the Americans were able to interact for the first time without being monitored by Iranian authorities.
And early Tuesday morning, the plane landed at Fort Belvoir. The Americans stepped off the plane, stepped onto American soil, and threw themselves into the arms of their loved ones, who were carrying small American flags they had brought.
“We are home,” Shargi said after hugging her daughters. “I can not believe it”.