Four Americans and seven Iranians got tickets to freedom in a prisoner swap playing out alongside the kick-start of an accord lifting heavy international sanctions on Iran in return for its agreement to pull back its nuclear program. A fifth American was released separately.
The negotiated exchange eases one leading irritant as the two countries gingerly explore prospects for a smoother relationship after decades of hostility, even as they remain sharply at odds on other fronts.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose name had not been previously made public, were freed from custody in Iran and were to be flown to Switzerland, U.S. officials said. U.S. student Matthew Trevithick was released independently of the exchange on Saturday and already was on his way home.
In turn, the U.S. will pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians, six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, accused or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions.
Three were serving prison terms and have received a commutation or pardon. Three others were awaiting trial. The last one made a plea agreement.
It's unclear if they will leave the U.S. for Iran. They are free to stay in the United States.
In addition, the U.S. will drop Interpol "red notices," essentially arrest warrants, on 14 Iranian fugitives it has sought, officials said.
The announcement of the exchange came shortly before Iran was certified as having met all commitments under the nuclear deal with six world powers.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other officials involved in the accord met in Vienna as the diplomatic achievement unfolded.
The release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal developments capped weeks of intense U.S.-Iran diplomacy that took several unexpected turns after an Iranian ballistic missile test in October and then the detention on Jan. 12 by Iran of 10 U.S. Navy sailors and their two boats in the Persian Gulf.
In a statement, Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., publisher of The Washington Post, said friends and colleagues were elated by the wonderful news that Rezaian was released from Evin Prison and safely left the country with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi.
"We are relieved that this 545-day nightmare for Jason and his family is finally over. We are pleased to see that Iran released four other Americans, and our hope is that those who remain held will soon follow.
"We are enormously grateful to all who played a role in securing his release. Our deep appreciation also goes to the many government leaders, journalists, human rights advocates and others around the world who have spoken out on Jason’s behalf and against the harsh confinement that was so wrongly imposed upon him.
"After enduring such deplorable conditions and inhumane treatment, the top priority now must be Jason’s health and well-being.
"Now a free man, Jason will be reunited with his family, including his brother Ali, his most effective and tireless advocate. We look forward to the joyous occasion of welcoming him back to the Washington Post newsroom."
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."
Trevithick's parents said he was freed after 40 days at a prison in Tehran. They did not say why Iran detained him. Trevithick, who is from Hingham, Massachusetts, co-founded a research center based in Turkey that assesses the humanitarian crisis in the area and traveled to Iran in September for a four-month language program.
Republican presidential candidates had slammed the Obama administration for striking the multinational nuclear deal with Iran while Americans were held captive. They welcomed news that the Americans were coming home but offered little to no credit to the president for the negotiations that secured the freedom of the prisoners.
Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton also embraced the developments while saying Iran should not be thanked, because it should never have detained the Americans. Her rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, offered unreserved praise for the diplomacy.
Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission, wasn't part of the deal. American officials are unsure if the former FBI agent is even still alive. The Iranians have always denied knowing his location.
Levinson's case was aggressively pursued, officials said, adding that Iran has committed to continue cooperating in trying to determine Levinson's whereabouts.
The exchange also didn't cover Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who advocated better ties between Iran and the U.S. He was thought to have been arrested in October.
According to the official IRNA news agency, the seven freed Iranians are Nader Modanlo, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahraman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi.