VIENNA (AP) — The U.N. nuclear agency certified Saturday that Iran has met all of its commitments under last summer’s landmark nuclear deal, crowning years of U.S.-led efforts to crimp Iran’s ability to make atomic weapons. For Iran, the move lifts Western economic sanctions that have been in place for years, unlocking access to $100 billion in frozen assets and unleashing new opportunities for its battered economy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the top diplomats of Iran and the European Union hailed the accord, reached after years of setbacks and a full decade after the start of international diplomacy aimed at reducing the possibility that Tehran could turn its nuclear programs to make atomic arms. And Kerry linked the trust built between Iran and the United States over the past two years of talks to the breakthrough release by Iran Saturday of four Americans who also hold Iranian nationality.
“Today marks the day of a safer world,” he declared. “This evening, we are really reminded once again of diplomacy’s power to tackle significant challenges.”
“Thanks to years of hard work and committed dialogue,” he added, “we have made vital breakthroughs to both the nuclear negotiations and a separate long-term negotiation,” that led to the freeing of the imprisoned Americans.
EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini in a statement also read in Farsi by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif, said the accord “demonstrates that with political will, perseverance, and through multilateral diplomacy, we can solve the most difficult issues and find practical solutions that are effectively implemented.
“This is an encouraging and strong message that the international community must keep in mind in our efforts to make the world a safer place,” she said, declaring: “The multinational economic and financial sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program are lifted.”
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama signed executive orders lifting economic sanctions on Iran, while Kerry who led the last years of negotiations with Zarif that culminated in the July 14 deal, confirmed that the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency could verify that “Iran has fully implemented its required commitments.”
“Relations between Iran and the IAEA now enter a new phase,” said IAEA director general Yukiya Amano. “It is an important day for the international community.”
Progress also came Saturday on another area of Iran-U.S. tensions: U.S. and Iranian officials announced that Iran was releasing four detained Iranian-Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held or charged in the United States.
U.S. officials said the four — Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari — were to be flown from Iran to Switzerland on a Swiss plane and then brought to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment.
In return, the U.S. will either pardon or drop charges against seven Iranians — six of them dual citizens — accused or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions. The U.S. will also drop Interpol “red notices” — essentially arrest warrants — on a handful of Iranian fugitives it has sought.
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.
The publisher of The Washington Post said he “couldn’t be happier” to hear that Rezaian had been released from Iran’s Evin Prison on Saturday. Publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. said more information would be available once he can confirm Rezaian has safely left Iran. Rezaian had been held more than 543 days on espionage and related charges.
U.S. officials said a fifth American detained in Iran, a student, has been released in a move unrelated to the prisoner swap between the two countries. They said the student, identified as Matthew Trevithick, was released independently of the exchange and already was on his way home.
The landmark Iran nuclear 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.”
But Israel warned in a statement put out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office that Iran has not given up its nuclear ambitions. It urged world power to respond harshly to any violations of the deal by Iran.
“Without a strong response to every violation, Iran will think it can continue to develop a nuclear weapon, destabilize the region and spread terror. Israel will continue to monitor and warn of Iran’s negative actions and will do everything necessary to protect its security and defend itself,” the statement said.
Iran insists all of its nuclear activities are peaceful. But under the July 14 deal, it 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.
With news of the deal’s implementation breaking long after midnight in Tehran, there was no repeat of the boisterous street celebrations that met agreement in July on the accord. But social media networking sites were abuzz.
“Hello to life without sanctions,” said one message. Another praised both Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose taking office in 2013 led to the start of serious negotiations after years of essential deadlock. “Thank you Rouhani,” one said. “Thank you Zarif.”
Associated Press Writer Ali Akbar Dareini contributed from Tehran