A plane carrying three of the four Americans freed by Iran as part of a prisoner swap landed in Germany after a brief stop in Switzerland on Sunday, two White House officials said.
Though there was no official government confirmation of who was on the plane that landed at Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. military facility in southwest Germany, it’s believed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini were all on the same aircraft.
The three were scheduled to be transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital, after arriving in Germany.
The men’s families issued statements confirming the three — who were among five U.S. prisoners Iran released Sunday — had left Iran, and a U.S. State Department special presidential envoy tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting them in Switzerland.
“Overwhelmed to greet Jason #Rezaian, his wife, Yegi, mother, Mary + Saeed #Abedini + Amir #Hekmati to #Geneva after safely departing #Iran,” the State Department’s Brett McGurk said on Twitter. He later posted a photo that appears to show Rezaian standing on a tarmac outside a plane.
White House officials said earlier Sunday that recently detained student Matthew Trevithick was released — but not as part of the prisoner swap — and had left Iran. There were no additional details.
The fifth prisoner, identified by U.S. officials as Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, decided not to leave Iran, senior White House officials said.
“It’s his free determination” whether he wants to stay in Iran, one official said. “We don’t make that judgment.”
The five Americans had been detained in separate cases, some as early as 2011.
Rezaian’s return eagerly awaited
A statement from a senior administration official did not name specific prisoners and provided only sparse details.
“We can confirm that our detained U.S. citizens have been released and that those who wished to depart Iran have left. We have no further information to share at this time and would ask everyone respect the privacy of these individuals and their families,” the official told CNN.
The publisher of The Washington Post confirmed Rezaian was released in the prisoner swap and had left the country with his wife.
“We look forward to the joyous occasion of welcoming him back to the Washington Post newsroom,” publisher Frederick Ryan Jr. said in a statement.
The journalist’s brother, Ali Rezaian, said Jason Rezaian was a talented journalist and devoted family man “whose life was unfairly interrupted when he was arrested for crimes he did not commit.”
He added, “After nearly a year and a half of arbitrary delays, and an unfair, opaque judicial process, Jason’s release has brought indescribable relief and joy to our family — this nightmare is approaching an end.”
An 11th-hour disagreement over whether Jason Rezaian’s mother was on board the flight delayed the plane’s departure, a U.S. official said, but Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with The Washington Post that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif assigned four people to help resolve the dispute.
Iranian, dual citizens freed in U.S.
Earlier Sunday, seven Iranian men walked free from detention in the United States after being pardoned and released, a lawyer for one of the men said.
Bahram Mechanich and Tooraj Faridi, both of Houston, and Khosrow Afghahi, of Los Angeles, were released, along with four other Iranians held in other parts of the U.S., Mechanich’s attorney Joel Androphy said.
They had all been indicted or imprisoned for sanctions violations, and six of the seven are dual citizens.
In praising the “tireless” effort that went into the prisoner exchange, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the clemency granted to the Iranian prisoners was a “one-time gesture.”
The prisoner swap comes a day after international inspectors concluded Tehran was in compliance with the deal governing its nuclear program. Iranian officials and U.S. administration officials confirmed the news Saturday. As a result, some international economic sanctions against Iran were lifted.
The deal came after more than a year of secret negotiations, the officials said. The nuclear agreement “accelerated” the prisoner swap, Kerry said.
The United States also agreed to drop charges against 14 other Iranians whose extradition to the United States seemed unlikely, a U.S. official said.
Congressmen to meet freed prisoners
Two congressmen were headed to Germany on Sunday to greet Rezaian and Hekmati.
“I am thrilled and relieved that Jason and these other Americans are no longer in prison,” said Jared Huffman, who represents Rezaian and has been involved in his case.
Huffman said the freed prisoners are expected to be transported to a U.S. military hospital in Germany for medical evaluation. They won’t be on U.S. soil for a few days, he said.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, said Hekmati’s father had fallen ill in the more than four years that his son has been detained. There is hope “that having Amir back gives him some strength.”
He said family members were feeling “tampered jubilation” Saturday while they waited to find out if Hekmati was really released, because they’ve gotten their hopes up in the past.
“Until he was out of Iran, until I got a call from the White House today saying the plane has crossed Iranian border, he is out of Iran, we all took a deep breath. Because it all became real,” the congressman told CNN.
In a statement, Kildee addressed Hekmati, saying, “Amir, I cannot wait to meet you for the first time, give you a big hug, and welcome you home.”
Robert Levinson’s fate unknown
The agreement also calls for Iranian officials to “continue cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Robert Levinson,” a U.S. official said. Levinson, a former FBI agent and CIA contractor, went missing in Iran in 2007.
Iran has denied holding him.
“We are happy for the other families,” Levinson’s family said in a statement. “But once again, Bob Levinson has been left behind. We are devastated.”
Trevithick’s release was not part of the prisoner swap, but U.S. officials did “indicate to Foreign Minister Zarif that it’d be important for them to try to resolve some of the other cases of Americans detained in the context of this ‘deal,'” a senior administration official told CNN.
U.S. offers clemency
In return, the U.S. is pardoning or commuting the sentences of an Iranian and six dual citizens.
The men had been involved in exporting products and services to Iran in violation of trade sanctions against the country. They were accused of exporting goods ranging from electronic components and satellite services to marine navigation and military equipment to Iran.
U.S. federal officials said they will not comment on the names of anyone who is part of the agreement until after the four Americans are in U.S. custody.
However, the attorney for Bahram Mechanich, one of the seven, told CNN his client was pardoned along with two others — Tooraj Faridi and Khosro Afghahi.
A source familiar with the case of a fourth man identified him as Ali Saboonchi.
The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency named the other three men as Nader Madanloo, Arash Ghahreman and Nima Golestaneh.