Iran, U.S. free prisoners as end of international sanctions nears

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5 Americans Released by Iran, 4 as Part of Prisoner Swap


VIENNA/DUBAI, Jan 16 (Reuters) - - Iran freed five Americans including a Washington Post reporter on Saturday as the two countries staged a series of goodwill gestures ahead of the expected announcement of the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran under a nuclear deal.

U.S. President Barack Obama pardoned three Iranian-Americans charged for sanctions violations, and U.S. officials said four others would be released, in a thaw in relations between the two nations that has shaped the Middle East since Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The ending of sanctions would bring the Middle Eastern country of 80 million people back to the global economic stage after several years away, and increase Iranian influence in a region torn by sectarian strife.

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 program in return for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States, United Nations and European Union.

Ahead of that announcement, Iran is releasing five Americans and the United States is freeing seven Iranians charged with sanctions violations, in what U.S. officials described as a humanitarian gesture.

Among the Americans being freed are Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, while Iranian news media said seven Iranians held for violating sanctions would be freed.

Photos of Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian:

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Jason Rezaian, Iranian-American Washington Post reporter being held
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Iran, U.S. free prisoners as end of international sanctions nears
FILE - In this photo April 11, 2013 file photo, Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post, smiles as he attends a presidential campaign of President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran. Lawyer Leila Ahsan, who represents Rezaian, told the Post on Monday, April 20, 2015 that the correspondent also faces charges of "conducting propaganda against the establishment," ''collaborating with hostile governments" and "collecting information about internal and foreign policy and providing them to individuals with malicious intent."(AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
Mary Rezaian, mother of detained Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, right, and Jason's wife Yeganeh leave a Revolutionary Court building in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The final hearing of Rezaian detained in Iran more than a year ago and charged with espionage ended on Monday,with a verdict expected in the coming days in a trial that has been condemned by the newspaper and press freedom groups. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22: Ali Rezaian, brother of imprisoned Washington Post's Iran bureau chief Jason Rezaian (in poster), gives reporters an update on his brother's case at the Naitonal Press Club in Washington, DC on July 22, 2015. It has been one year since American Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian was detained then imprisoned fon charges of espionage and propaganda against the Iranian establishment. He remains at Evin Prison in Tehran despite diplomatic pleas for his release. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief Jason Rezaian, talks about his brother's imprisonment in Iran while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard from relatives of five U.S. citizens currently held in prison in Iran. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: (L-R) Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief Jason Rezaian, Nagameh Abedini, wife of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, Sarah Hekmati, sister of Marine Sergeant (ret) Amir Hekmati and Daniel Levinson, son of former CIA spy Robert Levinson; testifiy before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from the relatives of the five U.S. citizens currently held in prison in Iran. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
EMBARGOED UNTIL FEBRUARY 12 AT 00:01 AM EST Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian who has been detained in Iran since July 2014, speaks alongside Delphine Halgand, USA Director of Reporters Without Borders, as they discuss the World Press Freedom Index 2015 during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, February 11, 2015. Published since 2002, the World Press Freedrom Index measures the level of freedom of information in 180 countries. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
EMBARGOED UNTIL FEBRUARY 12 AT 00:01 AM EST Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian who has been detained in Iran since July 2014, and Raza Rumi (R), a Pakistani journalist, discuss the World Press Freedom Index 2015 during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, February 11, 2015. Published since 2002, the World Press Freedrom Index measures the level of freedom of information in 180 countries. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 6: FILE, The Washington Post via Getty Images's Jason Rezaian at The Washington Post via Getty Images in Washington, DC on November 6, 2013. (Photo by Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. Rouhani declined to answer a question about a detained Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian. Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi, a correspondent for the Abu Dhabi-based daily newspaper The National, who have been held for more than a month. Iranian officials have not specifically said why Rezaian and his wife were detained. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
An October 12, 2015 photo shows the front of the Washington Post building. A verdict has been issued in the trial in Iran of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, the country's judiciary said Sunday, without detailing the judgment but hinting at a conviction. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22: Petition boxes for demanding the release of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian are seen during a news conference at the National Press Club July 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. The news conference was to give an update on the case of Jason Rezaian, who is being held in Evin Prison in Iran since July 22, 2014. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22: Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian, during a news conference at the National Press Club July 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. The news conference was to give an update on the case of Jason Rezaian, who is being held in Evin Prison in Iran since July 22, 2014. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 02: Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief Jason Rezaian, talks about his brother's imprisonment in Iran while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill June 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard from relatives of five U.S. citizens currently held in prison in Iran. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mary Rezaian (C), the mother of detained Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian talks to journalists as she leaves the Revolutionary Court after a hearing on August 10, 2015 in the capital Tehran. The trial of 39-year-old Iranian-American journalist, Jason Rezaian who has been in custody for more than a year, resumed behind closed doors, in what could be the final hearing before a judgment is issued on whether he spied on Iran. AFP PHOTO / BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Ali Rezaian, brother of Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post's Tehran Bureau Chief who is currently in Evin Prison in Iran, talks about the photo of his brother at a news conference at the National Press Club during update on the case in Washington, Tuesday, July 22, 2015. The Washington Post, stymied in its efforts to win the release of journalist Rezaian from Iran, has filed an urgent petition asking help from a United Nations agency. Rezaian was arrested over a year ago and has been held for months without charges in Iran's Evin Prison. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
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Iranian 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 expected sanctions announcement.

"Implementation day" of the nuclear is a turning point in the hostility between Tehran 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 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.

IRAN ASSETS

Even before the expected announcement that sanctions would be lifted, 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 Tehran for talks with state firms. Shell denied it.

Under the 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 exports of oil.

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 airplane parts.

Iran's expected return to an already glutted market is one of the main factors contributing to a global rout in oil prices, which fell below $30 a barrel this week for the first time in 12 years. Tehran 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 frontrunners, 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 U.S. sanctions on Iran for test-firings of a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

But the 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 swap.

The warming in relations between Iran and the United States is viewed with deep suspicion by U.S. allies in the Middle East including Israel and Saudi Arabia. It 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 Tehran to negotiate.

The Obama administration says the deal reached last July offered the best possible prospect of ensuring Iran would not develop a nuclear weapon, and could never have been achieved without the support of allies, which was always contingent on a pledge to lift sanctions once Iran complied.

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

The prospect of Iran's emergence from isolation could overturn the geopolitical balance of the Middle East. 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.

In Iraq, Tehran has found itself on the same side as the United States, supporting a Shi'ite-led government against the Sunni militants of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

"There are some people who see peace as a threat, who were always against (the nuclear deal) and will continue to oppose it," Foreign Minister Zarif, a U.S.-educated fluent English speaker, was quoted as saying by ISNA.

He has argued, including in a New York Times op-ed column last week, that Iran wants to help the global fight against Sunni Muslim militants spurred on, Iran says, by Saudi Arabia.

"It's now time for all - especially Muslim nations - to join hands and rid the world of violent extremism. Iran is ready," Zarif tweeted on Saturday.

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

Iran has tested missiles since the nuclear agreement, drawing threats from Washington to tighten those sanctions. A week ago Iran detained 10 U.S. sailors on two boats in the Gulf, although they were released the next day after Tehran said it had concluded they had entered its waters by mistake. (Writing by Peter Graff and Alistair Bell; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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