In a diplomatic breakthrough as implementation of a landmark nuclear deal appeared imminent, Iran released four detained Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held or charged in the United States. A fifth American detained in Iran, a student, was released in a move unrelated to the swap, US officials said.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former US marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose name had not been previously made public, were to be flown from Iran to Switzerland aboard a Swiss aircraft and then transported to a US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment, US officials said.
Rezaian’s wife and mother were expected to be on the plane.
The student, identified as Matthew Trevithick, was released independently of the exchange on Saturday and already was on his way home, US officials said. They spoke about the prisoner exchange on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
In return, the US agreed to pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians - six of whom are dual US-Iranian citizens - accused or convicted of violating US sanctions.
Three were serving prison terms and now have received a commutation or pardon. Three others were awaiting trial; the last one made a plea agreement.
It’s unclear if these individuals will leave the US for Iran. They are free to stay in the United States.
In addition, the US will drop Interpol “red notices” - essentially arrest warrants - on 14 Iranian fugitives it has sought, the officials said.
The announcement of the exchange came as the International Atomic Energy Agency was close to certifying that Iran had met all commitments under the nuclear deal with six world powers.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting in Vienna with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other officials involved in the accord, and it was expected that such certification could come on Saturday.
The release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal developments cap weeks of intense US-Iran diplomacy that took several unexpected turns after an Iranian ballistic missile test in October and then the detention on Jan. 12 by Iran of 10 US Navy sailors and their two boats in the Persian Gulf.
The US Treasury had planned to announce new sanctions the last week of December against Iran for violating prohibitions against ballistic missile tests, US officials said. But Zarif warned that the new penalties could kill the prisoner exchange. Kerry conveyed that message to US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on December 29 and the sanctions have been delayed until after the swap, the officials said.
But the decision was not relayed to lower-level officials who told some lawmakers on December 30 that the sanctions would be announced later that day, the officials said. That left the Obama administration to explain that the sanctions had been held up for “technical” reasons. Critics, unaware of the prisoner negotiations, accused the administration of caving on the missile sanctions to save the nuclear deal.
Then, on Tuesday, shortly before President Barack Obama was to deliver his final State of the Union address, Iran detained the US sailors and their boats. The sailors were released in less than 24 hours after Kerry intervened with Zarif in multiple telephone calls that administration officials hailed as a channel of communication opened because of the nuclear negotiations.
“Through a diplomatic channel that was established with the focus of getting our detained US citizens home, we can confirm Iran has released from imprisonment four Americans detained in Iran,” one of the US officials said.
Frederick J Ryan Jr., publisher of The Washington Post, said in a statement, “We couldn’t be happier to hear the news that Jason Rezaian has been released from Evin Prison. Once we receive more details and can confirm Jason has safely left Iran, we will have more to share.”
Hekmati’s family released a statement saying: “We thank everyone for your thoughts during this time. There are still many unknowns. At this point, we are hoping and praying for Amir’s long-awaited return.”
Trevithick, the student from Hingham, Massachusetts, went to Iran in September for a four-month language program at an institute associated with Tehran University, his family said in a statement. It said he was held for 40 days in Evin Prison, but gave no reason for his detention.
The negotiations over the American detainees grew out of the Iran nuclear talks. In discussions in Europe and elsewhere, Kerry and nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman were able to establish a separate channel of talks that would focus on the US citizens.
But that channel was kept separate from the nuclear conversations. American officials didn’t want the citizens used as leverage in the nuclear talks, and didn’t want to lose their possible release if the talks failed to produce an agreement.
The discussions then gained speed after last July’s nuclear deal. In talks in Geneva and elsewhere, a team led by Obama’s anti-Islamic State group envoy, Brett McGurk, worked on the details of a possible prisoner swap. The Iranians originally sought 19 individuals as part of the exchange; US officials whittled down the number to seven.
US officials stressed that the Americans were a priority. But the Iranians wanted a goodwill gesture or reciprocal measure in return, the officials said.
Among American politicians, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and US House Speaker Paul Ryan gave cautious praise to the release of the prisoners, particularly Abedini, but said they never should have been held in the first place. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders praised diplomacy as the key to solving the detainee issue.
Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission, wasn’t part of the deal. American officials are unsure if the former FBI agent is even still alive. The Iranians have always denied knowing his location.
Levinson’s case was aggressively pursued, the officials said, adding that Iran has committed to continue cooperating in trying to determine Levinson’s whereabouts.
The exchange also didn’t cover Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who advocated better ties between Iran and the US He was reportedly arrested in October.
According to the official IRNA news agency, the seven freed Iranians are Nader Modanloo, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahraman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi. It didn’t provide any further details.
The lawyer for Mechanic, who has been jailed since his indictment last April on charges of illegally exporting microelectronics technology to Iran, said his client was “elated” to be pardoned.
“He’s been incarcerated for nine months for a crime that he’s just accused of but did not commit,” said lawyer Joel Androphy. “To me, it’s just an injustice. You would expect this in some third-world country, not the United States.” The Justice Department uses the spelling of ‘Mechanic’ in court filings.