Qatar’s prime minister says that his country’s crucial role in the historic Iran-US prisoner swap could potentially bolster diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran.
Qatar’s central role in the historic Iran and US prisoner swap, which saw five prisoners released by each side in exchange for unlocking $6 billion worth of Iranian assets took centre stage as Qatar’s prime minister expressed immense pride in his country’s efforts during an exclusive interview with CNN.
Speaking of Doha’s pivotal role in reuniting the five dual Iranian-US citizens with their families, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said: “We were so proud to see that Qatar helped in bringing those people back to their families.”
The released prisoners, identified as Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and Siamak Namazi, along with two others who were not publicly named, touched down at a military airfield in Virginia on Tuesday.
Their departure from Iran was orchestrated aboard a Qatari charter flight the day prior.
Five Iranian detainees were also released by Washington as part of the deal which also included the unblocking of $6 billion in funds belonging to the Islamic Republic, which were previously held in South Korea.
Qatar’s confirmed receipt of the funds triggered the prisoner swap at Doha airport on Monday afternoon. Now, the Gulf state is responsible for supervising the allocation and utilisation of these funds.
The prisoner swap deal found its roots in negotiations conducted earlier this year in Doha.
When asked if this breakthrough could signify a potential reconciliation in Iran-US relations, Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the Gulf nation’s foreign minister responded optimistically, saying: “I cannot claim that this will lead to a nuclear deal, but it’s going definitely to lead to a better environment.”
“What happened yesterday actually was a great building block for rebuilding the confidence between the two countries,” he added.
“I hope both countries are believing that this will lead to a better environment to go for an entire agreement on the nuclear issue, and any other outstanding issue.”
The Qatar-mediated prisoner-release deal materialised against a backdrop of provocative moves from Washington, which slapped new sanctions on Iran.
On the same day of the prisoner exchange, reports said US President Joe Biden intends to enact fresh sanctions against Iran’s intelligence ministry and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite officials and organisations like the United Nations voiced hope for an easing of tensions between the decades-old foes after the prisoner exchange.
“We very much hope that it leads to greater cooperation and a lessening of tensions,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
An Al Jazeera correspondent described the move from Washington as a message signalling “this is still very much an adversarial relationship.”
The US also slapped fresh sanctions on Tehran on Friday, just days ahead of the prisoner swap, targeting numerous Iranian officials and entities over their alleged involvement in the “violent suppression” of anti-government protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in Tehran last year, reports said.
The already-enacted US sanctions on Iranian banks have significantly limited Iran’s capacity to fund essential humanitarian imports, with Human Rights Watch pointing to dire implications for the health of Iranians and their ability to obtain necessary medicines and has led to documented shortages.
Iran’s Ambassador to Qatar, Hamid Reza Dehghani, told Doha News in May 2022 that the crushing sanctions have impacted the country’s ability to acquire medicines, especially during the Covid-19 global health crisis.
“There are people impacted and children with [cancer] that needed some medicine. Since we were unable to send the money and pay for the medicine, many people died for this reason,” Dehghani told Doha News at the time.
This is despite “exemptions” in the rigid measures for imports of humanitarian goods, Reuters reported.
Separately, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has minimised expectations that the prisoner swap may result in a significant breakthrough in the attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
As the world watched, both Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and US President Joe Biden addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, exchanging familiar accusations within the hallowed halls of the UN’s General Assembly Hall.
Meanwhile, Qatar voiced optimism following a landmark Iran-US prisoner swap in Doha on Monday which could be a crucial catalyst for advancement in relations between the long-standing adversaries.
The swap, which saw detainees from both nations return home, has raised expectations for a revival of diplomatic ties and the resurrection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the nuclear deal.
Sheikh Mohammed also conveyed his appreciation this week for the implementation of the Iran-US prisoner exchange on his X platform, previously known as Twitter.
“With the entry into force of the US-Iranian prisoner exchange agreement, we thank both parties to the agreement, hoping that it will pave the way for further understandings,” he wrote on Monday.
“We also thank our partners who contributed to its success, especially the Sultanate of Oman, and we affirm that Qatar continues to contribute to everything that will enhance the security of the region and the world.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Qatar foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari said his country was exceptionally well-positioned to facilitate negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
“I think the trust has been built,” he noted, in reference to the US designating Qatar as a major non-NATO ally the previous year.
“Working relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran on various topics has made Qatar a very suitable mediator on [the prisoner swap] and we are hopeful that it will it will be only the start of our role in mediating between the two sides,” Al Ansari added.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi called the release of the American detainees “purely a humanitarian action.”
“It can certainly be a step based upon which in the future other humanitarian actions can be taken,” Raisi told reporters after his arrival in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
Last week, the Iranian president said his government will decide how it will spend its $6 billion, maintaining that it will be utilised “wherever we need it”.
“[It] belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money,” Raisi said in the interview with NBC Nightly News.
Also on Monday, two Iranian nationals, Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, were released by the US and arrived in Qatar before returning safely back home, according to Iran’s Press TV.
While international media focused on the moments exchanged between American detainees as they landed in Qatar around 5:30 PM (local time), Iran’s envoy to Qatar received the Iranian detainees in another room around the same time the Americans arrived.
“Those loved ones are now with us and will fly to dear Iran in a few minutes,” Ambassador Hamid Reza Dehghani said on his Twitter at 6:03 PM (local time), where he also welcomed the Iranian detainees.
Iranian media did however step in to capture moments in which the Iranian detainees reunited with their families, as per videos shared by Iran’s news agency.
Biden also thanked Qatar, Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea for their involvement in facilitating the negotiations for the prisoner exchange with Iran.
“I give special thanks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and to the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, both of whom helped facilitate this agreement over many months of difficult and principled American diplomacy,” Biden said in a statement.