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Iran is gaining access to about $6 billion in the deal to release 5 Americans

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Five Americans who had been detained in Iran are on their way home, and family members are expressing relief and joy. Earlier today they were flown out of Iran to Qatar, where some of them were seen emerging from their flight, getting their first taste of freedom as U.S. and Qatari officials greeted them, sharing some embraces and smiles. The deal to win their release, though, is facing some criticism here in Washington because Iran is getting access to about $6 billion. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For lawyer Jared Genser, it was the call he's been waiting for. His client, American businessman Siamak Namazi, who had been jailed for over eight years and faced torture in Iran, was seen on video stepping off a plane in Doha.

JARED GENSER: A moment later, he picked up the phone and called me. And I picked up the phone, and he said, Jared, I'm finally free. And for me, it was the culmination of a whole lot of work and effort by so many people all around the world over so many years. And I'm just so grateful today that the Namazi family nightmare is finally over.

KELEMEN: Genser says Siamak Namazi, who was passed over in several previous prisoner swaps with Iran, was feeling overwhelmed.

GENSER: You know, overwhelmed by the fact that this day had finally come. And frankly, I mean, he's missed some of the best years of his life. You know, he'd like to get married and have kids. He, you know, obviously needs to figure out what he's going to do for a job. And what is he going to do, and how is he going to recover from this traumatic experience?

KELEMEN: In addition to Namazi, four other Americans were released. They include environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi, an Iranian American businessman. The Biden administration did not identify the two others, a man and a woman. Namazi's mother and Tahbaz's wife were traveling with them. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he had an emotional call with all of them from Qatar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: It's very good to be able to say that our fellow citizens are free after enduring something that I think it would be difficult for any of us to imagine, that their families will soon have them back among them and that in this moment, at least, I have something very joyful to report.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration has faced a lot of criticism for the deal since it involved not just swapping prisoners but also helping Iran get access to about $6 billion in its oil revenue. Administration officials argue that they got the best deal they could. The five Iranians who were given clemency in the U.S. justice system were mostly convicted of or facing charges of sanctions violations. They were, in the words of one U.S. official, small potatoes. And the money is Iran's. Here's how Secretary Blinken put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: This involved the access by Iran to its own money, money that had accumulated in a Korean bank as the result of oil sales that Iran made, which were lawful at the time those sales were made.

KELEMEN: The $6 billion is now in a bank account in Qatar, and the U.S. says Iran can only use it for food, agricultural products, medicine and medical devices. The U.S. says it can be cut off again at any time. But speaking on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures," Republican Congressman Michael McCaul said the administration is naive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUNDAY MORNING FUTURES WITH MARIA BARTIROMO")

MICHAEL MCCAUL: We all know money's fungible. And then the president of Iran just came out and said, I'm going to spend it however I want to. And of course he is. And guess where it's going to go? It's going to go into terror proxy operations. It's going to go into building their nuclear - you know, their nuclear not defense system but offensive system.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken says the administration will keep up the pressure on Iran. And he's working with other countries at the United Nations General Assembly this week to come up with an agreement on ways the international community can punish countries that take hostages. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.