REUTERS - Three Iranian-Americans left Tehran on Sunday under a prisoner swap following the lifting of sanctions on Iran that is likely to thaw ties further with the United States as Tehran emerges from years of international isolation.
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A U.S. official said the Swiss plane had left carrying 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.
One more Iranian-American released under the same swap, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, was not aboard the aircraft.
A fifth prisoner, the American student Matthew Trevithick, was released separately from the other four 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. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN as the plane was about to depart.
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.
The prisoner deal was the culmination of months of diplomatic contacts, secret talks and legal maneuvering which came close to falling apart because of a threat by Washington in December to impose fresh sanctions on Iran for recent ballistic missile tests.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the exchange of prisoners by the United States and Iran and the lifting of sanctions against Tehran, saying the two countries should now cooperate on additional challenges to find "a safer future".
"I commend the moves by the governments of both countries to improve ties. I am also heartened by the lifting of sanctions against Iran," he said on a visit to Dubai, adding he hoped the parties honored a nuclear deal that made possible the lifting of curbs.
"Now is the moment to push for cooperation on other pressing challenges through dialogue which should continue to find a way for a safer future," he said.
Speaking to parliament earlier on Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rohani hailed the nuclear deal with world powers and the resulting lifting on Saturday of U.S., European and United Nations sanctions as a "golden page" in Iran's history.
Rohani, 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 UN have scrapped the crippling sanctions in return for Tehran complying with the deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.
But Rohani noted bitter opposition to the lifting of economic curbs from arch foe 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.
Presenting the draft budget for the next Iranian fiscal year, which begins in March, Rohani 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.
"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.
"The nuclear deal is an opportunity that we should use to develop the country, improve the welfare of the nation, and create stability and security in the region," Rohani said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that without Israel's leadership in promoting the sanctions on Iran, the country would have already been a nuclear power.
Speaking at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that "Without our efforts leading the sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program Iran would have had nuclear weapons long ago."
Together, the lifting of sanctions and the prisoner deal help to ease the hostility between Tehran and Washington that has shaped the Middle East since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
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.