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Iran Swaps Prisoners With U.S., Reaches Implementation Day On Nuclear Deal

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Iran Swaps Prisoners With U.S., Reaches Implementation Day On Nuclear Deal

Middle East

Iran Swaps Prisoners With U.S., Reaches Implementation Day On Nuclear Deal

Iran Swaps Prisoners With U.S., Reaches Implementation Day On Nuclear Deal

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On a day that sanctions were lifted on Iran, for its compliance with last July's international nuclear agreement, Iran also released five American prisoners. The U.S. released seven Iranians, as well.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been a dramatic day for Iran and the U.S. Iran has released five Americans it had been holding, among them was a Washington Post reporter held for more than a year. The U.S. released seven Iranians who were convicted or accused of sanctions violations. This comes on a day of another major development, one that had been expected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: We have reached implementation day. Today marks the moment that the Iran nuclear agreement transitions from an ambitious set of promises on paper to measurable action in progress.

MARTIN: That's U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announcing that inspectors have verified the removal of key components of Iran's nuclear program. With that done, major sanctions limiting Iran's access to international banks and commerce are now lifted. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us in the studios in Washington, D.C. Michele, tell us about the Americans' released today. You've been covering their cases for a long time.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: That's right. Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian - he spent 544 days in prison. His wife, who had also been detained early on in that ordeal and was - initially had to stay in Iran - we're told now that she's allowed to leave. Another person on his way back home is former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati. He's the longest-serving prisoner in this group. He was arrested in 2011, when he went to visit his grandmother. I spoke to his sister earlier this week. She was here for the State of the Union address, as was Jason Rezaian's brother. Christian pastor Saeed Abedini was also freed today, as was an American named Nosratollah Khosrawi. U.S. officials haven't said anything about that case other than that he was jailed within the past year. And there was a fifth man. His name is Matthew Trevithick, and his family says that he spent 40 days in Iran's Evin Prison. Unlike the others, he's not Iranian-American. He's American. He was a researcher based in Turkey, and his family says he went to Iran last September for language training.

MARTIN: You know, there seems to have been a lot less reported about the Iranians being held in the U.S. In fact, I think this might be the first time a lot of Americans understood that there were people - Iranians held in the U.S. Can you just tell us a little bit about what their cases were all about?

KELEMEN: You know, the Iranians have been suggesting this idea of a prisoner swap for a while. And we'd been looking into some of these cases before. The U.S. says that it offered clemency to seven Iranians, and six of them are dual-nationals - Iranian-Americans. These are cases across the U.S., mostly involving sanctions violations. For example, one man was in jail for trying to sell satellite equipment to Iran. The U.S. also says that it has removed Interpol red notices and dismissed the charges against 14 other Iranians officials. Officials felt that they weren't getting anywhere with those extradition requests. And again, these cases seemed to be mainly in sanctions violations.

MARTIN: Now, we just heard Secretary of State John Kerry earlier say that this is implementation day for the Iran nuclear deal, which was released last summer. How does this all work and are these related?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, these tracks did happen at the same time, so that was interesting. Secretary Kerry said these were always separate tracks, but they did culminate right now. And Secretary Kerry is saying this shows how diplomacy works. What happened today was the IAEA - the International Atomic Energy Agency - formally reported that Iran has taken the steps it needs to take to curb its nuclear program - shipping out uranium, closing a plutonium reactor, allowing inspections. And with that report, all the sanctions relief goes into effect almost immediately. So the U.S. is already putting out its statements, the EU is already lifting sanctions and a new U.N. Security Council resolution automatically goes into effect. And that ends U.N. sanctions, except there are some limits to Iran's ballistic missile program.

MARTIN: Michele, we only have about 45 seconds left. So what does Iran get out of this? And is this considered a major turn in the U.S.-Iranian relationship?

KELEMEN: Well, it certainly shows that these back channels work and diplomacies work. Iran is going to get out of this access to billions of dollars in frozen funds. It's going to take a while, I'm told. European and other companies - non-U.S. companies - can start buying oil and investing in the energy sector without fear of U.S. sanctions. There are very limited options for U.S. businesses.

MARTIN: That NPR's Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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