Iran Frees U.S. Prisoners in Swap After Lengthy Secret Talks

  • Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian among those released
  • U.S. says nuclear verification, prisoner swap not linked

Iran freed four Iranian-Americans, including a Washington Post reporter, under a prisoner swap with the U.S. that was more than a year in the making and concluded just hours before a decade-long standoff with world powers over the country’s nuclear program formally ended.

The four were Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter imprisoned since July 2014, pastor Saeed Abedini, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and Nosratollah Khosrawi, whose detention had not been previously announced. A fifth American, Matthew Trevithick, was released independent of the exchange, his family said in a statement issued through the U.S. Institute of Peace. The student and writer had been detained for 40 days after traveling to Iran for an intensive language program, Trevithick’s family said.

The U.S. in turn offered clemency or pardons to seven Iranians, six of them dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, who were convicted or awaiting trial in the U.S., according to an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the details. None was associated with terrorism-related offenses or violent crimes, a condition President Barack Obama insisted upon.

No Linkage

“I’m very happy to say that as we speak, five Americans who have been unjustly held captive in Iran have been released,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference in Vienna with diplomats, including Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, to announce the Islamic Republic had fulfilled its commitments under its nuclear accord with world powers in July.

U.S. officials said the completion of the prisoner swap deal and the verification of the nuclear deal, which prompted the immediate lifting on Saturday of certain economic sanctions, weren’t linked. A senior administration official said, without elaborating, that detained U.S. citizens had been released and those who wished to depart Iran had left.

The prisoner release was in “the general interests of the Islamic Republic,” according to a statement by the office of Tehran’s prosecutor.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said the prisoner swap “shows that diplomacy can work, even in this volatile region of the world.” Several Republican presidential candidates disparaged the way Obama handled both the nuclear talks and the prisoner release.

Republican Concern

“The concern I have, and we don’t know yet, is that the president made a trade,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told a crowd at a town hall in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday.

The talks dated back about 14 months. On Saturday, Kerry said there had been “a significant pick-up in that dialogue” since July. Linking the hostage release to finalization of the nuclear deal was not the administration’s original intent, the U.S. official said.

Rezaian, 39, was accused of gathering information beyond his role as a journalist and charged with spying. He was arrested along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and two others, including a freelance photographer. Salehi, an Iranian citizen, and the others were later released; Rezaian was tried on espionage charges in 2015.

“We couldn’t be happier to hear the news that Jason Rezaian has been released from Evin prison,” Frederick Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post, said in a statement. A Twitter handle, #FreeJason, used for months by newspaper colleagues and others to keep Rezaian’s plight in the public eye, was recast on Saturday as #JasonIsFree.

“Jason was just doing his job as a reporter and was unlucky enough to have dual U.S. and Iranian nationality at a time when the two countries were conducting tense negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program,” Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization that promotes global freedom of the press, said in a statement.

‘Daddy’s Coming Home’

Naghmeh Abedini, wife of the freed Iranian-American pastor, told CNN that she expected her husband to head to a U.S. military facility in Germany for a medical evaluation. “I woke my kids and said, ‘Daddy’s coming home,’” Abedini said.

The family of Hekmati, the former Marine taken captive in 2011, voiced thanks that his ailing father soon “will embrace his son once more.”

Three of the dual citizens freed by the U.S. were charged in April with illegally exporting technology to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

A fourth was sentenced in 2013 for money laundering and conspiring to illegally provide satellite services to Iran. The U.S. said he brokered a deal that led to the 2005 launch of the first-ever Iranian satellite into orbit.

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