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Iranian Release Of Prisoners May Be Part Of Broader Deal To Lift Sanctions


We begin this hour with breaking news. Iran has announced that it has freed several U.S. prisoners from Iranian jails. In exchange, the Iranians say the U.S. released some Iranians who'd been in jail here for sanctions violations. All of this occurs just as sanctions against Iran might be about to be released. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us in our studios. Michele, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: What do we know about the Americans who are being released?

KELEMEN: Well, they include Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, who's the longest held in this group. He was jailed in 2011 when he went to visit his grandmother in Iran. Christian pastor Saeed Abedini is also being released. His wife is calling this an answer to prayer. There's some confusion about the fate of another, Siamak Namazi, a businessman who was arrested after the nuclear deal was reached with Iran. His supporters say there are indications he was released, but we haven't had confirmation for Iranian media or the U.S. The U.S. says the other name - that Iran released is Nosratollah Khosravi. The U.S. for its part said it's offering clemency to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, who are convicted or are pending trial in the United States.

SIMON: For sanctions violations.

KELEMEN: That's right.

SIMON: And of course the sanctions are about to be lifted. Is that behind the timing of this announcement?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, that is an important moment of this, why this is happening now. The IEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is expected to announce as early as today that Iran's met its obligations under the nuclear deal. And that would trigger a lot of sanctions relief. So this is obviously a moment of maximum leverage for the U.S. and others to get these people back.

SIMON: Now, the critics of the deal, and what has happened subsequently, who - and it must be said, there have been some prominent Democrats, the president's own party, as well as Republicans, who says that in this deal the United States is not only surrendering its leverage but giving billions of dollars to an Iranian government to make mischief with U.S. adversaries.

KELEMEN: Well, that has been the criticism that the Iranian hardliners, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, for instance, could be the big winners with all of this sanctions relief because they control big companies, big businesses. But I have to say I also talked to a European ambassador yesterday who has a much different perspective. That's Germany's ambassador Peter Wittig. And he tells me that trade can bond countries together and that economic benefits were really part of this deal.

PETER WITTIG: We believe that trade can help to reestablish closer ties to Iran and make Iran a more responsible stakeholder in the region and beyond.

KELEMEN: And, you know, also with the release of these prisoners it shows that the Iranian moderates do want to put a different face of Iran out to the world today. Peter Wittig was talking about how the Iranians really wanted this implementation day, as it's known, to get out from under these sanctions sooner rather than later because there are elections in Iran and this could benefit the moderates, those who negotiated this deal.

SIMON: I - quick question - from what you've learned, are U.S. companies poised to jump into the Iranian market one way or the other?

KELEMEN: There are going to be a lot of restrictions still on the - on U.S. businesses. There are some exceptions. The U.S. companies will be able to import carpets, caviar, pistachios from Iran. They'll be able to sell airline and airline parts, and U.S. - foreign-owned subsidiaries will be able to do business. But there's still going to be a lot of rules and they're going to have to go over all the Treasury Department guidance that we're expecting any time now.

SIMON: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.