Iran, US announce prisoner deal; end of sanctions nears

Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian is among those freed.
Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian is among those freed.PHOTO: EPA

VIENNA (REUTERS) –  Iran and the United States eased decades of tension on Saturday with the announcement of a prisoner deal as world powers prepared to lift crippling sanctions against Teheran in return for the curbing of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.  

In an unusual move, President Barack Obama pardoned three Iranian-Americans charged for violating sanctions against Iran, a lawyer for one of the men said, while prosecutors moved to drop charges against four Iranians outside the United States.

Iran will free five Americans including a Washington Post reporter and a Christian minister in a thawing of the cold relations between two countries which have frequently locked horns since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The goodwill gestures laid the ground for the announcement expected later on Saturday of an end to international sanctions on Iran, which will bring the oil-producing country of 80 million people back to the global economic stage.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was expected to announce in Vienna that Iran had complied with a deal reached last year to rein in its nuclear programme, thus triggering the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States, United Nations and European Union.  

The end of sanctions also will give Iran greater influence in the sectarian strife of the Middle East where Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim powers are vying for power.  

Ahead of the sanctions announcement, US officials and Iranian media said Iran is releasing five Americans. And the United States has pardoned or dropped sanctions-related charges against at least seven Iranians inside and outside the United States, according to lawyers and court records.

Among the Americans being freed are Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and pastor Saeed Abedini.

“It is confirmed: Saeed is released from Iranian prison,” Abedini's wife, Naghmeh Abedini, wrote on Twitter.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who developed a close rapport during months of unprecedented talks hammering out the nuclear deal, met in a Vienna hotel before the expected sanctions announcement.

“Implementation day” of the nuclear deal is a turning point in the hostility between Teheran and Washington, and is a prize for both Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The two 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 Iranian 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 off Iran from the global financial system, drastically reduced its exports and imposed severe economic hardship on ordinary Iranians. Most will be lifted immediately.

HUGE IRANIAN ASSETS

Iran’s Mehr news agency reported on Saturday that executives from two of the world’s largest oil companies, Shell and Total, had arrived in Teheran for talks with state firms. Shell denied it.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran has agreed to forego nearly all enriched uranium, which world powers feared could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Once sanctions are lifted, Iran plans to swiftly ramp up its oil exports.

Tens of billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets will be unfrozen and global companies that have been barred from doing business there will be able to exploit a market hungry for everything from automobiles to aeroplane parts.

Iran’s expected return to an already glutted market is one of the factors contributing to a global rout in oil prices, which fell below US$30 a barrel this week for the first time in 12 years.

Teheran says it could boost exports by 500,000 barrels per day within weeks.

The nuclear deal is opposed by all of the Republican candidates vying to succeed Obama as president in an election in November.

Nevertheless, Ted Cruz, a conservative senator from Texas and one of the Republican front-runners, tweeted in support of the release of Christian convert Abedini: “Praise God! Surely bad parts of Obama’s latest deal, but prayers of thanksgiving that Pastor Saeed is coming home.”

The prisoner deal was nearly derailed in December by looming new US sanctions on Iran for test-firings of a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

But Obama administration officials decided to delay the new sanctions after Zarif warned Kerry that any such censure of the Islamic Republic could endanger the prisoner deal.

The warming in relations between Iran and the United States is viewed with deep suspicion by US allies in the Middle East including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The sanctions deal is supported by Washington’s European allies, who joined Obama earlier in his presidency in making sanctions far tighter as part of a joint strategy to force Teheran to negotiate.

For Iran, it marks a crowning achievement for Rouhani, a pragmatic cleric elected in a 2013 landslide on a promise to reduce Iran’s isolation. He was granted the authority to negotiate the nuclear deal by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an arch-conservative in power since 1989.

In Iraq, Teheran has found itself on the same side as the United States, supporting a Shi’ite-led government against the Sunni militants of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Iran is the pre-eminent Shi’ite Muslim power and its allies are fighting proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen against allies of its main Sunni Muslim regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

Iran has argued it wants to help the global fight against Sunni Muslim militants like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

“It’s now time for all – especially Muslim nations – to join hands and rid the world of violent extremism. Iran is ready,” Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted on Saturday.

US-Iranian hostility still remains deeply entrenched. Apart from the nuclear issue, Washington maintains separate, far less comprehensive sanctions on Iran over its missile programme.

A week ago Iran detained 10 US sailors on two boats in the Gulf, although they were released the next day after Teheran said it had concluded they had entered Iranian waters by mistake.