US and Iran conduct prisoner exchange ahead of sanctions relief

Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (Bilal Hussein/AP)

Despite Iran’s continued belligerence, four Americans were freed in a prisoner exchange ahead of the imminent lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

By: AP and World Israel News Staff

Notwithstanding recent tensions between Iran and the U.S., including Iran’s detaining last week of 10 American sailors who inadvertently drifted into Iranian waters and recent Iranian missile tests that clearly breached U.N. resolutions, the removing of Western sanctions on the Islamic Republic appears imminent.

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister suggested the U.N. atomic agency is close to certifying that his country has met all commitments under its landmark nuclear deal with six world powers.

Iranian Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held a series of meetings with his European Union and U.S. counterparts — including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — on implementing the accord.

“All oppressive sanctions imposed against Iran will be annulled today,” Zarif said on Iranian state TV — a reference to the process that will end financial and other penalties imposed on his country once the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency says Tehran has fulfilled its obligations to restrict its nuclear programs.

But even as diplomatic maneuvering on the nuclear issue dragged on into the evening, progress came on another area of Iran-U.S. tensions: U.S. and Iranian officials announced that Iran was releasing four detained Iranian-Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held or charged in the United States.

Iran's Parchin nuclear site

2004 satellite image of the suspected nuclear testing site in Parchin. (AP/DigitalGlobe-Institute for Science and International Security)

U.S. officials said the four Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abidini, were to be flown from Iran to Switzerland on a Swiss plane and then brought to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment. There were conflicting reports about the name of the fourth American freed.

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In return, the U.S. will either pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians — six of whom are dual citizens — accused or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions. The U.S. will also drop Interpol “red notices” — essentially arrest warrants — on a handful of Iranian fugitives it has sought.

Rezaian is a dual Iran-U.S. citizen convicted of espionage by Iran in a closed-door trial in 2015. The Post and the U.S. government have denied the accusations, as has Rezaian.

In Vienna, a senior diplomat familiar with the nuclear deal said last-minute discussions between French and U.S. officials on what Iran needed to do to restrict its nuclear research under the deal appeared to be responsible for the delay Saturday in lifting sanctions. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomacy.

A State Department official said “some technical clarifications” were taking place, but added: “There is no major issue being fought over.” The official demanded anonymity in line with State Department practice.

Responding to the delay, Zarif, in a tweet, said: “Diplomacy requires patience.”

Certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency would allow Iran to immediately recoup some $100 billion in assets frozen overseas. The benefits of new oil, trade and financial opportunities from suspended sanctions could prove far more valuable for Tehran in the long run.

Jason Rezaian

American hostage and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian freed in prisoner exchange. (AP/Zoeann Murphy)

Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini were in Vienna, headquarters to the IAEA, for separate meetings with Zarif.

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Despite Zarif’s optimistic comments about the approaching end to sanctions, both he and Kerry deflected a question about whether their deal would be implemented later in the day.

“We’re trying,” said Zarif.

“We’re working on it,” added Kerry, seated across the table from Zarif in an ornate room at a luxury Vienna hotel.

An IAEA report issued in early December confirmed “beyond any doubt” that Iran had a secret program to develop nuclear weapons, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in early December, upon release of the report.

All Republican candidates vying to succeed U.S. President Barack Obama in the 2016 election later this year are opposed to the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions. In the Middle East, Israel is joined by Saudi Arabia in opposition to the deal. In August, Kerry met with Gulf State leaders to ease apprehension after the signing of the accord a month earlier.