DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- Five Americans detained for years in Iran walked off a plane and into freedom Monday, some arm-in-arm, as part of a politically risky deal that saw President Joe Biden agree to the release of nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets owed by a third country, South Korea.
The successful negotiations for the Americans' freedom brought Biden profuse thanks from their families but heat from Republican presidential rivals and other opponents for the monetary arrangement with one of America's top adversaries.
"Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home," Biden said in a statement released as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar.
Iran's hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, on hand for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, suggested Monday's exchange could be "a step in the direction of a humanitarian action between us and America."
"It can definitely help in building trust," Raisi told journalists.
However, tensions are almost certain to remain high between the U.S. and Iran, which are locked in disputes over Tehran's nuclear program and other matters. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
The prisoner release unfolded amid a major American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of U.S. troops boarding and guarding commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of all oil shipments pass.
After the plane slowed to a stop in Doha, three of the prisoners walked down the stairs. They hugged the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Timmy Davis, and others.
The three -- Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz -- then threw their arms over one another's shoulders and walked off to a building in the airport.
In a statement issued on his behalf, Namazi said: "I would not be free today, if it wasn't for all of you who didn't allow the world to forget me."
"Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison," he said.
The United States did not immediately identify the other two freed Americans, all of whom were released in exchange for five Iranians in U.S. custody and for the deal over the frozen Iranian assets. The Biden administration said the five freed Iranians pose no threat to U.S. national security.
Two of the imprisoned Americans' family members, Effie Namazi and Vida Tahbaz, who had been under travel bans in Iran, also were on the plane. The women, too, clasped arms and kissed on the tarmac in Qatar.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said two of the Iranian prisoners will stay in the U.S. Meanwhile, Nour News, a website believed to be close to Iran's security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners were in Doha for the swap.
Nour News identified the two released Iranians in Doha as Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian sentenced by the U.S. to 63 months in prison in 2021 for obtaining equipment that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons and other military gear, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian charged in 2021 over allegedly unlawfully exporting laboratory equipment to Iran.
The $5.9 billion in cash released to Iran represents money South Korea owed Iran -- but had not yet paid -- for oil purchased before the U.S. imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
The U.S. maintains that, once in Qatar, the money will be held in restricted accounts to be used only for humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food. Those transactions are currently allowed under American sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic over its advancing nuclear program.