Last-minute misunderstandings over whether Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian’s mother, Mary, and wife, Yeganeh, were on the flight manifest, complicated by flight crew rest rules, contributed to delays in the departure of the Americans flown out of Iran on Sunday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told reporters hours before a Swiss plane bearing the freed prisoners left Tehran.
Kerry said it required the intervention of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who dispatched four aides to work through the “glitch” so the plane could leave as part of a carefully choreographed deal in which President Obama offered clemency to seven Iranians.
“Zarif had no question about it,” said Kerry during a 3:30 a.m. interview with four reporters traveling with him from Vienna, after the plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base. “It was part of the agreement, it was clearly stated. The problem was, one of the guys on the ground, at a military base, didn’t have it on the manifest.”
The departure of Yeganeh Salehi, who was arrested with her husband and eventually released on bail, was part of the deal brokered by Kerry and other U.S. officials. Mary Rezaian, who was in Iran while her son was put on trial and convicted of espionage and related charges, was not officially part of the agreement; she was placed on the plane manifest at the request of the Americans. But both were initially prohibited from boarding.
Kerry said he told Zarif, “Javad, look, it’s part of the agreement. She’s on the list.”
“He assigned four people to it immediately. Before I left and got on the plane, we had complete clarity… She was going to go. It was just a glitch.”
Even as Kerry spoke, however, almost 10 hours after leaving Vienna, the freed Americans had not yet departed, another delay Kerry attributed, in part, to rules regulating flight crew rest. He said he made another call to Zarif, and was confident the flight would leave, as it did shortly before 7 a.m. Washington time.
One of the four Americans freed as part of the deal, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, did not fly out with the others, U.S. officials said.
Kerry said they will be flown initially to Geneva, where they would be met by Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary of state for management, and Brett McGurk, a special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL who spent 14 months negotiating the prisoner swap.
“I hope America wakes up to the news they are in the air and on their way,” Kerry said.
Kerry said the complex swap was hammered out in a dozen meetings he held with Zarif in the months after they finished negotiating the nuclear deal in July.
Though Kerry and Zarif had discussed the imprisoned Americans on the sidelines of every negotiating session for the Iran nuclear deal, the focus turned exclusively to the prisoners during talks after the nuclear agreement was concluded on Feb. 14. During their first face-to-face encounter after that landmark agreement, at a multi-national meeting in Vienna in November to discuss possible Syrian peace talks, Kerry believed they had resolved the prisoner issue as well.
“We actually shook hands thinking we had an agreement,” he said. “I thought it was done.”
But that was apparently blocked, Kerry said, by “some folks back in Tehran in a different department, I don’t want identify it, I don’t want to embarrass people and cause problems, it was just one of those natural inter-agency, any government, differences. … So we went back to work grinding out that differential.”
Kerry said the negotiations hit a snag over Iranian demands for its citizens held in U.S. prisons, or facing charges. Iranian officials initially said they had demanded freedom for 19 prisoners, a number that eventually was whittled to seven, most of them holding dual citizenship.
“Iran asked for a lot of people,” Kerry said. “We said no. We said no, we said no, we said no to specific people they wanted until it became clear we were not going to let out hardened criminals, somebody accused of murder, of narcotics.”
Kerry said Obama insisted that the only Iranians the U.S. would consider releasing were those convicted or charged with violating nuclear related sanctions that were lifted Sunday as the nuclear agreement was implemented.
“There was a symmetry here,” Kerry said.
Not all the seven Iranian prisoners will return to Iran, Kerry said. That was determined by U.S. consular officials who visited them in person to ask their preferences, a task that was mirrored in Iran with visits to the American prisoners by consular officials from the Swiss Embassy that represents U.S. interests in Iran.
A fifth American prisoner in Iran, Matthew Trevithick, was released and flown out of the country Saturday morning in a separate release.
Kerry said a written agreement ensures Iran will cooperate with U.S. officials investigating the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007. Kerry said he has “no idea” if Levinson is alive or dead. Kerry said he spoke recently with Levinson’s wife, assuring her the United States will continue to search for him, and Iran has agreed to cooperate in that search..
“We are making our very best effort, taking the last information known regarding his whereabouts,” Kerry said. “He was absolutely part of every discussion.”
Kerry said the United States also would continue negotiating with Iran over the release of Siamak Namazi, a Dubai-based U.S. citizen who was detained last fall. He is not part of the written agreement, however.
Kerry said he had been confident the negotiations would succeed eventually.
“I always believed we’d get there sometime” he said. “But I couldn’t tell whether it was going to get super complicated by the insertion of this other agency and political dynamics into the mix. …But in the end (Iran) worked hard and did the things yesterday they said they would do, and we did things.”
Kerry said that he hopes that negotiations for the prisoner swap herald a new day when Iran and the United States can iron out their differences at the negotiating table, but he said there are no guarantees.
“There are no other deals, no side deal to this,” he said. “Nothing is hidden here. What you see is what you get. People are out and free. We still have problems with Iran. None of this wipes away our concerns with Iran. We have to continue to work at those. But you have to start somewhere. And this is a beginning.”