VIENNA/DUBAI- – Iran freed four Americans including a Washington Post reporter on Saturday in a prisoner swap, as diplomats gathered to announce the lifting of international sanctions and bring the country of 80 million people back to the global economic stage.
The International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to announce in Vienna that Tehran had complied with a deal reached last year to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States, United Nations and European Union.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who developed a close rapport during months of unprecedented talks hammering out last year’s deal, met in a Vienna hotel before the announcement.
“Implementation day” of the nuclear deal marks the biggest re-entry of a former pariah state into world commerce since the end of the Cold War.
It is also a turning point in the hostility between Iran and the United States that has shaped the Middle East since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, a prize for both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Both leaders have faced strong opposition from hardliners at home in countries that have called each other “Great Satan” and part of the “axis of evil”.
“Today, with the release of the IAEA chief’s report, the nuclear deal will be implemented, after which a joint statement will be made to announce the beginning of the deal,” Zarif was quoted as saying in Vienna by state news agency IRNA.
“Today is a good day for the Iranian people as sanctions will be lifted today,” the ISNA agency quoted him as saying.
The sanctions, mostly imposed in the last five years, have cut Iran off from the global financial system, drastically reduced the major oil producer’s exports and imposed severe economic hardship on ordinary Iranians. Most will be lifted immediately.
Iranian media reported that four Iranian-Americans held in Iran had been released and seven Iranian-Americans held in the United States would also be freed under the prisoner swap. U.S. State Department officials declined immediate comment.
The four freed in Iran include Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian and two Iranian-Americans arrested while visiting relatives: Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati. There were conflicting reports about the identity of the fourth.