The end of Western sanctions against Iran loomed Saturday as Iran’s foreign minister suggested the U.N. atomic agency is close to certifying that his country has met all commitments under its landmark nuclear deal with six world powers.
But even as the diplomatic maneuvering on the nuclear issue dragged on into the afternoon, progress appeared to be developing on another area of Iran-U.S. tensions. Iranian state television announced that Tehran had freed four dual-nationality prisoners but did not name them.
A person close to Iran’s judiciary confirmed to The Associated Press that Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is one of them. He identified two others as former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abedini. It was unclear who the fourth was, but indications were it may be Nosratollah Khosravi. The person in Iran spoke on condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to publicly speak to the media.
Rezaian is a dual Iran-U.S. citizen convicted of espionage by Iran in a closed-door trial in 2015. The Post and the U.S. government have denied the accusations, as has Rezaian.
U.S. officials would not immediately confirm the prisoner exchange announcement.
In Vienna. Iranian Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke ahead of a series of meetings with his European Union and U.S. counterparts — including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — on implementing the accord.
“All oppressive sanctions imposed against Iran will be annulled today,” Zarif said on Iranian state TV — a reference to the start of the process that will end financial and other penalties imposed on his country once the U.N. agency says Tehran has fulfilled its obligations to restrict its nuclear programs in the deal reached last summer.
Certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency would allow Iran to immediately recoup some $100 billion in assets frozen overseas. The benefits of new oil, trade and financial opportunities from suspended sanctions could prove far more valuable for Tehran in the long run.
Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini were in Vienna, headquarters to the IAEA, for separate meetings with Zarif.
Despite Zarif’s optimistic comments about the approaching end to sanctions, both he and Kerry deflected a question about whether their deal would be implemented later in the day.
“We’re trying,” said Zarif.
“We’re working on it,” added Kerry, seated across the table from Zarif in an ornate room at a luxury Vienna hotel.
In his earlier comments to Iranian television, Zarif said the deal between his country and the six world powers would hold, telling Iranian media that all parties would “not allow the outcome of these talks to be wasted.”
The agreement, struck after decades of hostility, defused the likelihood of U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran, something Zarif alluded to.
“Our region has been freed from shadow of an unnecessary conflict that could have caused concerns for the region,” he said. “Today is also a good day for the world. Today will prove that we can solve important problems through diplomacy.”
Iran insists all of its nuclear activities are peaceful. But under the July 14 deal, Iran agreed to crimp programs which could be used to make nuclear weapons in return for an end to sanctions. The agreement puts Iran’s various nuclear activities under IAEA watch for up to 15 years, with an option to re-impose sanctions should Tehran break its commitments.