Iran to release four detained Americans ahead of nuclear deal
Iran has announced it will release four detained Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held in the United States.
The move is a major diplomatic breakthrough, taking place ahead of the expected implementation of a landmark nuclear deal.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former US Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi, whose name had not been previously made public, are 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.
Mr Rezaian's wife and mother are expected to be on the plane.
A fifth American detained in Iran, a student, was released in a move unrelated to the swap, US officials said. The student, identified as Matthew Trevithnick, was released independently of the exchange on Saturday and is already was on his way home, US officials said.
In return, the US will 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 have now received a commutation or pardon. Three others were awaiting trial, while the last one made a plea agreement.
It is 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 announcement of the exchange came with the International Atomic Energy Agency close to certifying that Iran has met all commitments under the nuclear deal with six world powers.
US secretary of state John Kerry is meeting Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other officials involved in the accord in Vienna, with agreement expected later on Saturday.
The release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal developments cap a week of intense US-Iran diplomacy that took an unexpected turn on Tuesday with the detention by Iran of 10 US Navy sailors and their two boats in the Persian Gulf.
The sailors were released in less than 24 hours after Mr Kerry intervened with Mr Zarif in multiple telephone calls that administration officials hailed as a channel of communication opened because of the nuclear negotiations.
Of the current prisoner releases, 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."
Mr 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."
The negotiations over the American detainees grew out of the Iran nuclear talks. In discussions in Europe and elsewhere, Mr 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 did not want the citizens used as leverage in the nuclear talks, nor did they want to lose their possible release if the talks failed to produce an agreement.
Mr Rezaian, who holds both US and Iranian citizenship, was convicted in closed proceedings last year after being charged with espionage and related allegations. The Post, for which he covered Iran, and the US government have denied the accusations, as has Mr Rezaian.
Mr Hekmati, of Flint, Michigan, was detained in August 2011 on espionage charges. He had gone to Iran to visit family and spend time with his ailing grandmother.
Mr Abedini of Boise, Idaho, was detained for compromising national security, presumably because of Christian proselytising, in September 2012. He was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison.
Still missing is Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission. American officials are unsure if the former FBI agent is still alive. The Iranians have always denied knowing his location.
The exchange also did not 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 Mekanik, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahraman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi.