US prisoners leave Iran for US base as Obama hails win for diplomacy

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WASHINGTON/ANKARA (Reuters) -- Three Iranian-Americans left Tehran for a U.S. base in Germany on Sunday under a prisoner swap following the lifting of most international sanctions on Iran under a deal that President Barack Obama said had cut off Tehran's path to a nuclear bomb.

In a sign of sustained readiness to track Iranian compliance with remaining United Nations curbs, the United States imposed fresh sanctions on 11 companies and individuals for supplying Iran's ballistic missile program.

The Obama administration had delayed the step for more than two weeks during tense negotiations to free five American prisoners, according to people familiar with the matter. Iran conducted a precision-guided ballistic missile test last October, violating a U.N. ban.

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Jason Rezaian, Iranian-American Washington Post reporter being held
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US prisoners leave Iran for US base as Obama hails win for diplomacy
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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"This is a good day because once again we are seeing what's possible through strong American diplomacy," Obama said at the White House. "These things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and with wisdom."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hailed the nuclear deal as a "golden page" in Iran's history and said the agreement could be used as a model to resolve other regional issues.

The lifting of sanctions and the prisoner deal considerably reduce the hostility between Tehran and Washington that has shaped the Middle East since Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979.

A Swiss plane took Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief, Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Idaho and Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Flint, Michigan, as well as some family members from Tehran to Geneva, Switzerland.

They landed around 1700 GMT (2 p.m. ET), and a Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters they had left for a U.S. military base in Germany shortly afterwards.

One more Iranian-American released under the same swap, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, was not aboard the aircraft. A fifth prisoner, American student Matthew Trevithick, was released separately on Saturday, a U.S. official said.

"We can confirm that our detained U.S. citizens have been released and that those who wished to depart Iran have left," a senior U.S. administration official said.

Several Iranian-Americans held in U.S. prisons after being charged or convicted for sanctions violations have also been released, their lawyers told Reuters on Sunday.

MONTHS OF TALKS

The prisoner deal was the culmination of months of contacts, secret talks and legal maneuvering which came close to falling apart on at least one occasion.

Speaking to parliament on Sunday, Rouhani, a pragmatist elected in 2013 on promises to end Iran's years of sanctions and isolation, said he looked forward to an economic future less dependent on oil exports.

These are nevertheless likely to jump now that the United States, European Union and U.N. have scrapped the sanctions in return for Tehran complying with the deal to curb its nuclear ambitions - ambitions that Tehran says were peaceful.

But Rouhani noted bitter opposition to the lifting of economic curbs from Israel, some members of the U.S. Congress and what he called "warmongers" in the region - an apparent reference to some of Iran's Gulf Arab adversaries, not least Saudi Arabia.

Presenting the draft budget for the next Iranian fiscal year, which begins in March, Rouhani told parliament the deal was a "turning point" for the economy of Iran, a major oil producer which has been virtually shut out of international markets for the past five years.

He later said he expected 5 percent economic growth in the next Iranian fiscal year beginning in March and assured foreign investors of political and economic stability.

"The nuclear negotiations which succeeded by the guidance of the Supreme Leader and support of our nation, were truly a golden page in Iran's history," he said.

Tens of billions of dollars' worth of Iranian assets will now 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.

After the prisoners were freed, it was announced that the United States and Iran settled a longstanding claim, releasing to Tehran $400 million in funds frozen since 1981 plus $1.3 billion in interest, the State Department said. The funds were part of a trust fund once used by Iran to purchase military equipment from the United States, which was tied up for decades in litigation at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague.

CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT FOR ROUHANI

In Tehran, ordinary Iranians were cautious about what the future holds after the lifting of sanctions. Many have lived under sanctions or wartime austerity for so long that they have no clear expectations about what the future might hold.

America's thaw with Iran is viewed with deep suspicion by U.S. Republicans as well as allies of Washington in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. U.S.-Iranian suspicion still remains deeply entrenched. Rouhani said economic ties would not be fully restored.

Iran's Gulf Arab adversaries were silent on news of the nuclear deal's implementation, in what is perhaps a sign of unease at the rapprochement.

Israel's opposition was evident in a statement from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, which said that even after signing the nuclear deal Iran had not yet "abandoned its aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons."

Rouhani took a swipe at Iran's critics. "Everybody is happy except the Zionists, the warmongers who are fueling sectarian war among the Islamic nation, and the hardliners in the U.S. congress," he said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency ruled on Saturday that Iran had fulfilled last year's agreement with six world powers to curtail its nuclear program, triggering the end of sanctions.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano will travel to Tehran on Sunday to meet Rouhani and the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, the IAEA said on Saturday.

Minutes after the IAEA's ruling, the United States formally lifted banking, steel, shipping and other sanctions on Iran. The EU likewise ended all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions against the country. Most U.N. sanctions also automatically ended.

MONEY AND PRESTIGE

The end of sanctions means more money and prestige for Shi'ite Muslim Iran as it becomes deeply embroiled in the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East, notably in the Syrian civil war where its allies are facing Sunni Muslim rebels.

It is also a crowning achievement for Rouhani, a pragmatic cleric who had pledged to reduce Iran's international isolation.

Britain welcomed the deal's implementation, as did France, which said it would watch to ensure that the deal was strictly respected. Japan said it planned to lift most of its sanctions against Iran, including a halt to fresh investments in Iranian oil and gas projects, "within a few days."

The European Commission said it would undertake a first "technical assessment mission" in February to explore energy ties with Iran. The EU executive is particularly keen to develop Iranian supplies as an alternative to Russia, whose powerful role as supplier of around a third of the EU's oil and gas has divided the bloc.

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