LANDSTUHL, Germany — Champagne flowed and chocolates were passed around moments after a group of former Iranian American prisoners left Iranian airspace aboard a special Swiss jet that carried them to freedom.
“Everybody was sort of in a state of disbelief, and we still are,” former Marine Amir Hekmati said Tuesday as he described the scene on the flight with two other former detainees: a Washington Post reporter and a Christian pastor.
The group was among four Iranian Americans, including Post reporter Jason Rezaian, released Saturday as part of a two-country deal under which the United States also pardoned or dropped charges against 21 Iranians in sanctions-related cases.
In addition, Iran released a fifth American, 30-year-old student Matthew Trevithick, in a what U.S. officials described as a separate “humanitarian gesture” that coincided with the lifting of international sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear pact with world powers.
Commenting on the nuclear deal Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, welcomed the removal of international sanctions but trampled hopes of further rapprochement with the United States after the agreements.
Hekmati, 32, who spent more than four years in an Iranian prison, said he felt “alive for the first time, like being born again,” as he recounted the dizzying events of the past days: A prison guard telling him to pack, a “nerve-racking” delay in leaving Iran and the trip that ended at a U.S. military hospital in Germany for medical tests.
Before his release, he was “at the point where I had just accepted that I was going to be spending 10 years in prison,” said Hekmati of Flint, Mich., who was arrested by Iranian security forces in 2011 and faced espionage-related charges.
Hekmati, appearing calm and healthy, wore a heavy black sweater and jeans as he met journalists near the entrance to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center with his brother-in-law and Rep. Daniel Kildee, the Democratic congressman from his district in Michigan. Hekmati’s two sisters are also staying at the base with him.
“We were speechless for a while,” he said. “But I’ve said a lot, and we still have a lot to talk about.”
Hekmati also expressed deep gratitude for the support from loved ones abroad, as well as the media, and even from elected officials, including U.S. congressmen and President Obama.
“Even the Iranian officials, our captors essentially, were amazed,” he said. “They asked us why are they working so hard for you? And I just said that it’s America and they love their citizens. Even the other Iranian prisoners were moved.”
When the plane finally took off, and then cleared Iranian airspace, the celebration began.
“Champagne bottles were popped” aboard the Swiss government jet, he said. “The Swiss are amazing. The hospitality. Chocolates. Veal was served.” Switzerland handles U.S. diplomatic affairs with Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran.
Hekmati, like the other prisoners who have been released, declined to talk in detail about his time in prison, but he did credit his experience in the U.S. Marines for being able to “withstand all the pressures that were put upon me, some of which were very inhumane and unjust.”
“Hearing about some of my fellow Marines supporting me really gave me the strength to put up with over four years of some very difficult times that I and my family went through,” he said.
It still is not clear when Hekmati will leave Germany, but he said he “hoped to go home soon,” adding that he had not seen his whole family yet.
“I really want to see my family and be back in the land of the free back home,” he said.
Rezaian, the Post reporter, also was undergoing medical tests at the U.S. military hospital after almost 18 months in an Iranian prison.
Rezaian, 39, stood trial behind closed doors in a Revolutionary Court on charges including espionage — allegations he strongly denied. He was found guilty last year and sentenced to a prison term, but the secretive court disclosed neither the specific charges on which he was convicted nor the length of the term.
“I want people to know that physically, I’m feeling good,” Rezaian said during meetings Monday with the Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, and foreign editor, Douglas Jehl. “I know people are eager to hear from me, but I want to process this for some time.’’
Also released in the deal were Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, 35, of Boise, Idaho, and another Iranian American, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, who opted to remain in Iran. The student, Trevithick, flew out Saturday on his own.
Accompanying Rezaian on the flight were his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian journalist, and his mother, Mary Rezaian.
Abedini had been imprisoned since July 2012 for organizing home churches. Hekmati spent more than four years behind bars on spying charges following his arrest in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother.
Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) met with Abedini for 90 minutes Tuesday at the Landstuhl hospital, the congressman’s office announced.
“I think he’s doing very well — physically, emotionally and mentally,” Pittenger said in a brief telephone interview Tuesday evening. “He’s come out of an honest trauma, 3 1/2 years, much of that in isolation. He said that in the last six months, they fed him well and treated him well, knowing that they would soon be releasing him. I think that they saw in their mind that they would be releasing him at the point of this deal being consummated.”
Pittenger had worked since 2013 to secure Abedini’s release at the request of Charlotte pastor David Chadwick and evangelist Franklin Graham, his office said.
In Tehran, Khamenei, the country’s top religious and political authority, offered no further openings to Washington in his first public remarks since international economic sanctions were lifted on Saturday. Instead, he repeated past warnings about Iran’s deep mistrust of the United States.
Khamenei’s approval was critical to allow last year’s nuclear accord with world powers that limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for ending sanctions against Iran.
Khamenei’s nod also was needed to green-light additional talks leading to the two-country prisoner deal that culminated Saturday.
“I reiterate the need to be vigilant about the deceit and treachery of arrogant countries, especially the United States, in this [nuclear] issue and other issues,” Khamenei said, according to Iranian news agencies.
Although there is no clear path for greater U.S.-Iran contacts after more than 35 years of diplomatic estrangement, the high-level connections forged during the long nuclear talks have raised suggestions of new opportunities for interaction.
Last week, State Department officials credited Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s direct talks with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as key to quickly working out the release of 10 U.S. sailors detained after two small U.S. Navy riverine boats strayed into Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.
On a regional level, Iran plays a central role in supporting Syria’s government and could have important sway in any U.S.-backed political settlement to end the more than five-year crisis. In Iraq, there are Iranian has ties with Shiite militias, which could have had a hand in the recent abduction of three Iraqi American contractors in Baghdad.
Khamenei, however, noted “pessimism” linked to comments by U.S. politicians as international sanctions were lifted — a provision to the nuclear deal after Iran complied with measures to reduce its nuclear capacities and stockpiles. Khamenei did not cite any specific U.S. officials, but some Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates have strongly criticized the accord.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, slapped new sanctions on companies and individuals accused of supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. Last fall, Iran announced two missile tests. Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, the No. 2 in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, later boasted that Iran’s missile arsenal is so extensive that there is trouble finding storage sites.
“Expressions by some U.S. politicians in recent days are matter of pessimism,” Khamenei said without elaborating.
Murphy reported from Washington. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.