In a dramatic gesture unveiled only hours before world powers moved to begin lifting economic sanctions against Iran on Saturday, four Americans were freed from Iranian jails in exchange for U.S. prosecutors pardoning or dropping cases against 21 Iranians.
The complex prisoner swap, the culmination of a year of secret negotiations between Iran and the United States, sealed a landmark agreement that offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for implementing restrictions on its nuclear program.
Among the U.S. citizens freed was Jason Rezaian, a California native and Washington Post correspondent who had been jailed in Tehran for nearly 18 months. His imprisonment had become an international cause celebre among free-press advocates.
The prisoner exchange came days after Iran swiftly freed 10 U.S. sailors who had been captured in Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, averting a potential crisis that could have derailed the nuclear deal.
Tehran's chief prosecutor announced the release of the four prisoners, saying the move reflected the national “interests” and was approved at the highest levels of government — implying the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
Freed with Rezaian were Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, whose cases had also drawn extensive public attention.
Abedini is a Christian pastor from Boise, Idaho, jailed on security charges for allegedly trying to establish churches in homes. Hekmati is an ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency, which he denies.
The other American freed as part of the exchange was identified as Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, a businessman whose name had not previously been made public.
All four are joint U.S.-Iranian citizens. But Tehran does not recognize dual citizenship and treated the cases as internal security matters.
Iranian officials also announced the release of a detained American student, Matthew Trevithick, from Hingham, Mass., though his case was said to be unrelated to the swap. Trevithick's family said he had been held 40 days in Iran after arriving in the country for an intensive language program at an institute affiliated with Tehran University.
Iran also agreed to continue trying to find another American, Robert Levinson, who was working in an unauthorized CIA operation when he disappeared in Iran in 2007, a U.S. official said.
No mention was made of Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman reportedly arrested last fall in Iran.
In return, Washington agreed to pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians, six of whom are dual citizens, accused of trying to circumvent sanctions restricting commerce with Iran. In addition, U.S. authorities dismissed charges and removed Interpol alerts against 14 Iranian fugitives who it believed would never be extradited.
The prisoner deal was the product of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations that ran parallel to the nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers, including the United States.
On Saturday, the United Nations announced that Iran has met its obligations and will regain access to a broad range of international commerce, while recouping tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets.
“Today is a day when we proved to the world that threats, sanctions, intimidation, pressure don't work,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in Vienna. “Respect works. Through respect, through dialogue, through negotiations, we can in fact reach mutually acceptable solutions.”
The top Iranian diplomat was speaking about the nuclear negotiations, but his comments seemed to apply in equal measure to the talks that resulted in the prisoner exchange.
The Obama administration had faced withering criticism for not insisting on the Americans' release as a condition for a nuclear deal. But Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he always brought the matter up during talks on the sidelines of those negotiations.
For months, rumors had circulated that Iran was seeking the release of a number of its nationals in U.S. custody in exchange for the freedom of the Americans jailed in Iran.
A senior Obama administration official, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the “Iranians wanted a goodwill gesture.”
About a year ago, Iran presented a list of names of Iranians or dual citizens who were jailed or facing trial in the U.S. The list was “whittled down” to exclude anyone involved in crimes, violence or terrorism, the official said.
Their release, stressed another official, was a “one-time arrangement because it was an opportunity to bring Americans home.” The most high-profile U.S. prisoner in Iran had been Rezaian, a Marin County native who served as the Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran from 2012 until his arrest in July 2014.
He had been held in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, and his imprisonment had a serious effect on his health, family members have said.
Rezaian was arrested for what the semiofficial Fars News Agency called “attempts to help the U.S. Senate to advance its regime change plots in Iran.” He was tried for espionage and related national security charges in a closed-door proceeding last year in Iran's Revolutionary Court.
His supporters maintained that Rezaian engaged solely in legitimate and legal journalistic activities. The Post called the evidence arrayed against its correspondent laughable, noting that Iranian prosecutors cited a 2008 application that the journalist had submitted online for a job in the Obama administration.
However, Rezaian appeared to have been caught in the crosswinds of both international and Iranian domestic politics.
Some had speculated that Rezaian's arrest was an attempt by hard-liners in Iran to undermine the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who won office on a pledge to end both international sanctions against Iran and the nation's longtime isolation.
Many conservatives in Iran are opposed to any opening with the West, viewing such a move as a betrayal of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — and, in some cases, as a threat to economic and political powers entrenched since the overthrow of the U.S.-backed monarchy that had previously ruled Iran.
“We couldn't be happier to hear the news that Jason Rezaian has been released from Evin Prison,” Washington Post publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. said in a statement Saturday.
Relatives of the other freed Americans also expressed relief Saturday.
“This has been an answer to prayer,” Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, said in a statement released by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian-based group.
Levinson's family was distressed that their loved one was not among those freed. “We are happy for the other families. But once again, Bob Levinson has been left behind,” they said in a statement posted on a family website. “We are devastated.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and staff writers McDonnell and Wilkinson from Beirut and Washington, respectively. Staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.
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