Iran released four Iranian-Americans in a prisoner swap Saturday, clearing away a long-festering source of US-Iran tension as the Iran nuclear deal reached a critical milestone.
Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian was set free after 543 days in custody, held on security charges that his family and the Post called “absurd.” Also released were Amir Hekmati, a former US Marine held since 2011; Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor held since 2012; and Nasratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, identified by Iranian state TV as a businessman.
The four were freed in exchange for clemency granted to seven Iranian-Americans held in the US on sanctions-related charges. US diplomats had raised the cases of the detained citizens in every round of nuclear talks for years, as had Iranian officials in return.
Also released was Matthew Trevithick, co-founder of a non-governmental organization that analyzes humanitarian efforts in Syria. Mr. Trevithick was studying Farsi in an official program when he was arrested 40 days ago.
"We are profoundly grateful to all those who worked for [Matt’s] release and are happy for all the families whose loved ones are also heading home,” Amelia Newcomb, Trevithick’s mother and an editor at the Christian Science Monitor, said in a statement.
Both US and Iranian officials have stated that reaching the nuclear deal was not linked to the fate of the detainees, but the prisoners were released shortly before diplomats in Vienna announced “implementation day” of the landmark nuclear accord agreed to in July.
Late Saturday evening, the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency confirmed that Iran had taken steps to curb its nuclear program – from cutting the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium to shipping out 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium – clearing the way for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.
Message to hard-liners
The prisoner swap comes just days after top US and Iranian diplomats resolved another potential crisis in less than 24 hours, when 10 US sailors were arrested in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf and released unharmed.
“Planning to swap prisoners on the nuclear accord’s implementation day had a simple message to skeptics in Tehran and Washington: Goodwill begets goodwill,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
The swap “was a smart move to prove to hard-liners on both sides that even a narrow arms control agreement can produce more positive knock-on effects than coercion and confrontation.”
The US State Department confirmed that the release was orchestrated “through a diplomatic channel that was established with the focus of getting our detained US citizens home.” It said the US “offered clemency” to seven Iranians – six of them dual US-Iran citizens – who were “convicted or are pending trial.” The US also removed Interpol red notices and charges against 14 other Iranians they wanted extradited.
Iran’s release decision was made by the Supreme National Security Council in “the general interests of the Islamic Republic,” the semi-official Fars News Agency reported.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking before the prisoner releases were announced, said: “Today is a day when we prove to the world that threats, sanctions, intimidation, pressure don’t work. Respect works. Through respect, through dialogue, through negotiations, we can in fact reach mutually acceptable solutions…[and] prove that the naysayers were always wrong.”
While talk of a swap first emerged last summer, by early fall new allegations were published against Mr. Rezaian, whose case has garnered the most headlines and been pursued relentlessly by his family.
Rezaian 'officer of the soft war'
The reporter lived in Tehran since 2008 and began work for the Post in 2012. He was accused by hard-line parliamentarians of running an “American intelligence station” in the Iranian capital, and of being familiar with “modern espionage techniques.”
A report by the Revolutionary Guard, the lawmakers said, claimed that Rezaian was an important “officer of the soft war” against Iran who was paid $3,000 for every second of his videos.
Those allegations came in the midst of a series of strident anti-American speeches by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he forbade further direct negotiations with the US and warned of spying efforts by the “Great Satan” to “penetrate” Iran.
At the same time, centrist President Hassan Rouhani sent contrary signals, suggesting that it was an “impossibility” that US-Iran enmity would continue “until the end of the world."
Rezaian was arrested with his Iranian wife – also a journalist – and another couple, who were all later released. His apartment was ransacked so thoroughly, one witness later recalled, that each tea bag had been sliced open.
Rezaian’s family campaigned tirelessly for the California native’s release, as he lost weight and was plagued by health problems.
When Iranian officials indicated that Jason might be free in November 2014, for example, the dashed hopes meant he “fell into the depths of despondency,” his mother, Mary Breme Rezaian, told the Christian Science Monitor a year ago, after two visits with her son.
Mr. Hekmati was arrested during a family visit in August 2011, after informing the Iranian interest section in Washington, D.C. about his US military service. He was convicted of spying and sentenced to death, which was commuted to 10 years in prison. His family denies the charges.
Mr. Abedini, a convert from Islam-turned-missionary from Boise, Idaho, was sentenced to eight years in prison on national security charges for carrying out prayer services in private homes in Iran. He was arrested while trying to raise funds to set up an orphanage.
The following is the complete statement from Trevithick’s family:
We are very happy that our son, Matthew Trevithick, was released today after 40 days of detention at Evin Prison in Tehran. Matt went to Iran in September for a four-month, intensive Farsi language program at the Dehkhoda Institute, a language center affiliated with Tehran University.
Matt is a co-founder of Turkey-based SREO, a nonpartisan research center that provides objective analysis on the humanitarian crisis in the region.
Matt took a leave of absence from SREO in September 2015 to build on his fluency in Dari, a language closely related to Farsi that he learned while living for four years in Afghanistan.
We are profoundly grateful to all those who worked for his release and are happy for all the families whose loved ones are also heading home. We look forward to reuniting with Matt and ask that all respect his privacy as he returns.