VIENNA — Iran released Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and three other detained Iranian Americans on Saturday in exchange for seven people imprisoned or charged in the United States, U.S. and Iranian officials said, a swap linked to the imminent implementation of a landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.
Iranian officials said Rezaian, 39, was freed from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison after 18 months of captivity and was to be promptly flown out of the country with the three other released detainees..
U.S. officials subsequently confirmed the deal but were awaiting confirmation that a Swiss plane carrying the four has left Tehran.
Iran’s judiciary announced the release in Tehran as part of an exchange, according to Iranian news media.
In return, the United States is releasing seven people charged with violating sanctions against Iran, U.S. and Iranian officials said.
U.S. officials said Iran is also freeing a fifth American, a student detained in Tehran some months ago, separately from the exchange.
A senior administration official, speaking in Vienna, confirmed the exchange but said that “our citizens have not yet been flown out of Iran, and we do not want to do anything that would complicate it.”
The official said that the “Iranians wanted a goodwill gesture” as part of the release, and that led to the exchange. The list the Iranians submitted to U.S. authorities was “whittled down” to exclude any crimes related to violence or terrorism,” said the official, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity under administration ground rules..
Another official said that the exchange was a “one-time arrangement because it was an opportunity to bring Americans home,” and should not be considered something that would “encourage this behavior in the future” by Iran.
The officials did not tie the release directly to the nuclear talks and said they had not wanted the detained Americans to be “used as leverage” in the negotiations. But, they said, completion of the nuclear deal last July greatly accelerated talks about the prisoners.
A senior administration official identified the fifth American as Matthew Trevithick. “Matthew was a young man studying in Iran” and was “detained in recent months,” the official said. “We wanted him obviously to be a direct part of this, and made clear to Iranians that [his release] would be an appropriate humanitarian gesture.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (R-Calif.), who represents the district where the Rezaian family lives, said he was told by the White House that the Americans would be aboard a Swiss Air plane that would take them briefly to Switzerland and that they would not return home until they have “medical checkups,” most likely at a U.S. military medical facility in Germany.
“We’re all very excited that hopefully within a matter of days we’ll be able to welcome them back to the United States,” Huffman said.
In a statement in Tehran, Prosecutor Abbas Jaafari said that “based on an approval of the Supreme National Security Council and the general interests of the Islamic Republic, four Iranian prisoners with dual nationality were freed today within the framework of a prisoner swap deal,” the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.
The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, quoting Jaafari, said the agreement also includes a provision under which the United States will no longer pursue the extradition of 14 Iranians alleged to have been involved in trafficking arms to Iran.
In Washington, the State Department said clemency has been offered to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, who had been convicted or were awaiting trial in the United States. “The United States also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful,” the department said.
News of the reported exchange came as world leaders converged Saturday in Vienna in anticipation of the end of international sanctions against Iran in return for significantly curtailing its nuclear program.
The nuclear agreement will take effect when the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies that Iran has met its commitments under the deal it signed last July with six global powers, including the United States.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew from London to Vienna in the early afternoon local time. He went immediately into a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Coburg Palace Hotel, the scene of months-long final negotiations last summer that led to the deal between Iran and the world powers.
Those reportedly being freed Saturday included Saeed Abedini, 35, of Boise, Idaho; Amir Hekmati, 32, of Flint, Mich.; and Nosratollah Khosavi-Roodsari, Iranian officials said. Fars News Agency named the fourth person as Nosratollah Khosrawi-Roudsari.
Abedini is a Christian pastor who had been imprisoned since July 2012 for organizing home churches. Hekmati is a former Marine who spent more than four years in prison on spying charges following his arrest in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother. The detention of Khosavi-Roodsari had not been previously publicized.
Not included in the deal was Siamak Namazi, a Dubai-based oil company executive who had promoted closer U.S.-Iranian ties, Iranian officials said. He was arrested in October while visiting a friend in Tehran. In addition, the fate of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in March 2007 during a visit to Iran’s Kish Island, remains unknown.
Namazi remains incarcerated because “his charges are financial, and not political,” Fars said.
Asked about Namazi and Levinson, U.S. officials in Vienna said that talks were continuing on their fate.
“Iran has also committed to continue cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Robert Levinson,” a U.S. official in Washington said.
Fars named seven Iranians it said were being exchanged by the United States in the deal: Nader Modanlou, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afqahi, Arash Ghahreman, Touraj Faridi, Golestaneh and Ali Sabounchi.
Joel Androphy, a lawyer for three of the Iranians to be freed by U.S. authorities, said the Iranian Embassy told him that his three clients, who have been charged with sanctions violations but have not yet gone to trial, have been issued a pardon by President Obama. The administration had no immediate comment.
Kris Coratti, vice president of communications and spokeswoman for The Post, said that “while we are hopeful, we have not received any official word of Jason’s release.”
The exchange quickly became political fodder in the United States among Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a television interview Saturday: “We’d be very happy for the families of the Americans who are going to be home and for those Americans, but I’d also want to hear what the other side of the deal is, if this president is releasing more terrorists from Guantanamo to go back and reenter the war on terror. . . . We shouldn’t have to swap prisoners. These folks were taken illegally in violation of international law and they should have been released without condition.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters while campaigning in Iowa: “The fact of the matter is that this tells us everything we need to know about the Iranian regime. That they take people hostage in order to gain concessions. And the fact that they can get away with it with this administration I think has created an incentive for more governments to do this around the world.”
Huffman, the Rezaians’ congressman, called the remarks “shameful.” He told The Post that Rubio and other Republicans “would have said the same things” no matter what the circumstances. “There are some critics of the administration that just can’t acknowledge anything good that comes from this administration.”
Rezaian’s ordeal damaged his health, drew protests from media and human rights groups and hampered efforts to improve relations between Washington and Tehran. It also exposed fault lines and infighting in Iran’s opaque political system, where Rezaian and other detained Americans appeared to become pawns in a larger internal struggle between hard-liners and reformists seeking to improve ties with the West.
Kerry frequently raised the plight of Rezaian and other imprisoned U.S. citizens during last year’s nuclear negotiations, but their release was not part of the resulting agreement between Iran and the six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Rezaian was tried last year behind closed doors on vague charges of espionage and other alleged offenses and was sentenced to an unspecified prison term.
The Americans’ release came as the International Atomic Energy Agency prepared to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, triggering steps to lift U.N. sanctions against the country and return an estimated $50 billion in frozen Iranian funds. (Tens of billions more in frozen funds are to be used to pay Iranian debts.)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hailed the nuclear accord’s “Implementation Day” and its promise of sanctions relief as heralding a “year of economic prosperity” for Iran and fulfillment of his campaign promises when he was elected in 2013.
Rezaian’s 2014 arrest and his subsequent trial and conviction in Iran’s secretive Revolutionary Court system — on charges that were never publicly disclosed or substantiated — appeared to reflect a power play by hard-liners fiercely loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against more moderate reformist elements under Rouhani. The hard-liners control Iran’s security forces, intelligence apparatus, judiciary and most other levers of power, while Rouhani — though answerable to Khamenei — has been given relatively free rein to manage Iran’s foreign affairs and improve its economy.
Although major differences between Tehran and Washington persist, tensions eased somewhat after the nuclear deal was reached in July. It imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, aimed at forestalling any attempt to build nuclear weapons, in return for the lifting of international economic sanctions on Iran and the release of frozen Iranian funds from banks worldwide, mostly in Asia.
Iran in recent weeks took significant steps to meet its obligations under the deal in anticipation of securing sanctions relief and regaining access to its impounded cash. Such tangible benefits from the nuclear accord, which was opposed by hard-liners, could help moderates in Iran’s legislative elections at the end of February.
Increased U.S.-Iranian cooperation appeared to be on display Wednesday when Iran released 10 U.S. sailors within a day after they were seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces in the Persian Gulf. The Americans were on two small riverine boats that strayed into Iranian waters.
Against this backdrop, the signs of rapprochement raised hopes for a resolution in Rezaian’s case.
For the first time, the Revolutionary Court allowed his mother, Mary Rezaian, and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, to visit him in Evin Prison for an extended period on Christmas Day. In an email to The Washington Post, Mary Rezaian said the meeting lasted “several hours” and that she was able to bring her son “his first home-cooked meal in months.”
Dec. 3 marked the Post correspondent’s 500th day in captivity — longer than 52 Americans were held during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis and by far the lengthiest detention of a Western journalist by Tehran.
Ahead of that milestone, The Post filed a supplementary petition with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, amplifying a filing in July that accused Iran of flagrant human rights violations during Rezaian’s “unlawful” detention and called for his immediate release.
The additional petition cited the journalist’s “declining health,” saying he continued to lose weight and suffer from blood pressure complications and other undertreated physical and mental conditions. It said he was subjected to “further interrogations, psychological abuse, and physical mistreatment” and was “forced to wear a hood” when being escorted around the prison by guards or interrogators.
Born in Marin County, Calif., to an Iranian emigre father and an American mother, Rezaian moved to Iran in 2008 and worked as a journalist for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined The Post in 2012 and wrote stories that he hoped would give readers a deeper and more nuanced view of Iran; one of his last recounted the travails of the country’s fledgling baseball team.
Rezaian was arrested along with his wife when security forces raided their home on July 22, 2014. Salehi, 31, a journalist who worked for the Abu Dhabi newspaper, the National, was released on bail in October, but Rezaian languished in Evin Prison for months without trial or even specific charges.
In December 2014, Rezaian was officially charged with publicly unspecified offenses, and prosecutors announced a month later that he would be tried in Revolutionary Court. The case was assigned to Abolghassem Salavati, a hard-line judge known for imposing draconian sentences — including long prison terms, lashings and execution — on political prisoners and detainees deemed a threat to national security. Salavati has been under European Union sanctions since 2011.
Rezaian’s attorney, Leila Ahsan, disclosed last April that an indictment she was allowed to read charged Rezaian with espionage and three other serious crimes, including “collaborating with hostile governments” and “propaganda against the establishment.” Rezaian was also accused of gathering information “about internal and foreign policy” and providing it to “individuals with hostile intent.”
The charges carried a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison, Ahsan said.
Rezaian and The Post vigorously denied the accusations.
When he went on trial in May last year, the court proceedings indicated that some of the claims against Rezaian stemmed from a visit he made to a U.S. consulate regarding a visa for his wife and a letter he wrote seeking a job in the Obama administration in 2008 — material that was apparently taken from his confiscated laptop.
Rezaian holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship. But Iran, which does not recognize dual nationality, barred any U.S. role in the case, including consular visits by Swiss diplomats representing U.S. interests. Diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran were severed in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis.
The last of four Revolutionary Court sessions was held in August, but it was not until October that a court spokesman announced a conviction — without providing any details. In November, the court said Rezaian was sentenced to a prison term, again with no elaboration.
In the meantime, Iranian officials floated the idea of a prisoner swap with the United States. President Rouhani even suggested that Tehran could free Rezaian and at least two other Iranian American prisoners if Washington reciprocated by releasing 19 Iranian citizens convicted in the United States of circumventing sanctions.
As if to buttress that proposal, state-run news media in Iran then reported that Rezaian was accused of “spying on Iran’s nuclear programs” and giving the U.S. government information on people and companies evading sanctions.
The prisoner-swap maneuvering showed that, for Iran, Rezaian’s innocence was “immaterial” and that what mattered more was whether he could be used to extract political concessions from the United States, The Post argued in its latest submission to the U.N. Working Group in late November.
“The Iranian Government’s indiscriminate, baseless, and constantly evolving theories and allegations — which continue to change even after the conclusion of his trial — provide yet further evidence that Rezaian has committed no crime and is entitled to immediate release and some form of compensation for his wrongful imprisonment,” it said.
Branigin and DeYoung reported from Washington. Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.