Iran releases 4 Americans in swap with U.S.

Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post, smiles as he attends a presidential campaign of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran,  April 11, 2013. Iranian state television announced Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, that the government has freed four dual-nationality prisoners. [Vahid Salemi | Associated Press]
Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post, smiles as he attends a presidential campaign of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, April 11, 2013. Iranian state television announced Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, that the government has freed four dual-nationality prisoners. [Vahid Salemi | Associated Press]
Published January 16 2016
Updated January 17 2016

VIENNA — Four Americans detained in Iran will be coming home and seven Iranians in U.S. custody also will win their freedom in a breakthrough swap negotiated by the longtime foes, officials in both countries said. As well, a fifth American was freed separately.

The news emerged as a landmark deal took effect Saturday relieving sanctions on Iran in return for its progress in pulling back its nuclear program.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose name had not been previously made public, were freed from custody in Iran and were to be flown to Switzerland, U.S. officials said.

U.S. student Matthew Trevithick was released independently of the exchange on Saturday and already was on his way home.

In turn, the United States will pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians — six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens — accused or convicted of violating U.S. 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 they will leave the United States for Iran. They are free to stay in the United States.

In addition, the United States will drop Interpol "red notices" — essentially arrest warrants — on 14 Iranian fugitives it has sought, officials said.

The announcement of the exchange came shortly before Iran was certified as having met all commitments under the nuclear deal with six world powers.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other officials involved in the accord met in Vienna as the diplomatic achievement unfolded.

The release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal developments capped weeks of intense U.S.-Iran diplomacy that took several unexpected turns after an Iranian ballistic missile test in October and then the detention on Tuesday by Iran of 10 U.S. Navy sailors and their two boats in the Persian Gulf.

The four Americans released in Iran under the negotiated prisoner exchange were still in that country early Sunday as arrangements progressed to get them out, a senior Obama administration official said. Speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, the official said efforts were under way to get the four together and on a plane out of Tehran.

Kerry said the Americans had been released from Iranian custody.

Frederick 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 is from Flint, Mich. He was arrested on spying charges on Aug. 29, 2011, while on a visit to see his grandmother. In January 2012, Iran sentenced him to death for a list of crimes including alleged spying for the CIA. U.S. officials at the time denied the charges, calling them politically motivated. His sentence was later overturned.

Abedini, 35, is from Boise, Idaho. An Iranian-born pastor, he was arrested in September 2012 on charges related to his faith. He was found guilty of endangering national security by holding private religious services in home churches. His case gained the attention of fellow Christians around the world, with evangelical activists urging President Barack Obama to push for his release. His wife and two children live in Boise, Idaho.

Little information was immediately available about Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari.

Trevithick's parents said he was freed after 40 days at a prison in Tehran. They did not say why Iran detained him. Trevithick, who is from Hingham, Mass., co-founded a research center based in Turkey that assesses the humanitarian crisis in the area and traveled to Iran in September for a four-month language program.

Negotiations over 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 U.S. citizens.

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.

The exchange also didn't cover Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who advocated better ties between Iran and the United States. He was thought to have been arrested in October.

According to the official IRNA news agency, the seven freed Iranians are Nader Modanlo, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahraman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi. It didn't provide any further details.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

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