WASHINGTON -- Just before dawn Tuesday morning, the five Americans freed in the prisoner swap with Iran landed back home in America at Fort Belvoir's Davison Army Airfield. Three of the freed prisoners stepped off the plane and onto U.S. soil for the first time in more than five years and were greeted by cheers from loved ones eager to welcome them home.
As the former hostages and their families celebrated the homecoming, the Biden administration continues to take heat for the terms of the negotiations.
While five Iranians held in the U.S. were granted clemency in exchange for freedom for the five imprisoned Americans, critics argue the arrangement was not even a trade since Secretary of State Antony Blinken also agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds.
"An even swap of at least the number of the same number of citizens is something that can be tolerable but when you have to sweeten it with $1.2 billion per American to get them out, I mean where's our $6 billion?" Victoria Coates from the Heritage Foundation told CBN News. "It just it makes no sense and it does become the biggest ransom in history."
Under the deal, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, along with two other U.S. citizens with dual nationality who wished to remain anonymous are safely out of Iran. Two relatives of the detainees were on board their plane, according to reports.
The two other Americans weren't under arrest but had been blocked from leaving the country.
The U.S. State Department said these people are survivors of "Unspeakable cruelty" as prisoners of the Iranian regime.
Close-up photos showed three of the five Americans breathing free air for the first time in years.
A Qatari government jet provided a safe flight to Doha, Qatar for the men.
"It means that husbands and wives, fathers and children, grandparents can hug each other again, can see each other again," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
The prisoners' release was a product of a deal cut between the Biden administration and Tehran last month with each country exchanging five prisoners.
"It's good news that American hostages, illegally seized by the regime in Iran, are coming home. But paying $6 billion in ransom payments means the regime will only take more hostages," explained Mark Dubowitz, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "This has become a lucrative means of international extortion for Iran's supreme leader."'
Some Republicans have blasted the deal since its initial announcement, likening it to paying a ransom, saying it will encourage future hostage-taking. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said in a statement, "I am very concerned that this $6 billion hostage deal incentivizes future hostage-taking. There is no question this deal will free up funds for Iran's malign activities."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on the Senate floor: "…we know quite well that the Iranian people's needs and the Iranian regime's priorities rarely overlap."
The deal also drew criticism from a Democrat. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) questioned how the funds will be used in an interview with CBS News.
"I want to hear what kind of constraints are being put on, in this exchange in terms of what has been reported, the $6 billion," Warner said.
Blinken said the funds -- Iranian oil revenue once frozen in South Korea -- are now in a bank in Qatar. They're a key element for the deal and can only be used for humanitarian purposes.
"We have absolute oversight of how they're used and they can only be used for humanitarian purposes," Blinken said. "And we have absolute confidence in the process."
Despite the deal, Blinken said the U.S. will continue to hold Iran accountable. He also took note of retired FBI agent Bob Levinson who disappeared from Iran's Kish Island 16 years ago and was declared legally dead in March of 2020 after his family accepted that he died in captivity. However, questions abound about why he was being held. But Iran has never acknowledged detaining Levinson.
The State Department has reiterated a warning to U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Iran. The department warned there is no way to guarantee a similar result for other Americans who decide to travel to the country.
Tensions won't be lowered between the two countries because the nuclear threat from Iran is stronger than ever. The Islamic regime is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
The prisoner swap and $6 billion payment also come 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% of all oil shipments pass. Iran has harassed oil tankers and seized several of them without any valid reason.