Vienna/Washington: Iran has released four American prisoners, including a Washington Post reporter, a Christian pastor and a former US Marine, Iranian television said on Saturday.
Iran released a fifth American, student Matthew Trevithick, a US official said on Saturday, separately from four other Americans who were released in a prisoner swap.
The Americans released included Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran correspondent, Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Idaho, Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Flint, Michigan, and Nosratollah Khosravi, state television said. Iran's IRNA news agency, however, said the fourth person was Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, welcomed the news but said he suspected that the deal would have disappointing elements as well.
In Washington, President Barack Obama pardoned three Iranians charged with sanctions violations as US authorities moved to drop charges or commute prison sentences for five other men, according to court records and people familiar with the matter. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The men pardoned were Bahram Mechanic, Tooraj Faridi, and Khosrow Afghahi, according to Mechanic's lawyer, Joel Androphy. They were accused in 2015 of shipping electronics to Iran. Mechanic and Afghahi were being held without bail in Houston, while Faridi was out on bail. All three are Iranian-American dual citizens and had pleaded not guilty.
"We're ecstatic that the president has decided to pardon them for basically trade issues," Androphy told Reuters.
Washington Post reporter Rezaian, 39, was arrested in July 2014 along with three other journalists, including his wife Yeganeh Salehi. All were freed except for Rezaian, an Iranian-American who was convicted in a closed-door trial for espionage and other offenses including "collaborating with hostile governments."
Former Marine Hekmati, 32, was detained while visiting an Iranian relative in August 2011 and sentenced to death for espionage. He was re-sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2013 after the death sentence was overturned. Abedini, a 35-year-old American Christian pastor born in Iran, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 on charges of attempting to undermine the Iranian government.
The inclusion of Nosratollah Khosravi on the list came as a surprise and there were no biographical details about him immediately available.
Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and DEA agent, who disappeared in Iran since 2007, was not among those released by Iran, according to the list of names broadcast by Iranian television. US officials have believed for several years that Levinson died in captivity. Iranian officials had repeatedly denied any knowledge of his disappearance or whereabouts.
The US Justice Department also moved to drop sanctions charges against four other men who are outside the United States, according to electronic court filings.
US authorities have considered three of them fugitives and had been seeking extradition from Malaysia for one.
A spokesman for the Justice Department referred questions to the White House.
Authorities were also working to obtain early release for Ali Saboonchi, convicted of export violations in 2014, according to people familiar with the matter. Between 2009 and 2013, Saboonchi and several associates tried to export industrial parts to customers in Iran, according to an indictment filed in 2013. He was sentenced to two years in prison and was due to be released in November 2016.
Citing "significant foreign policy interests" of the United States, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Texas asked federal judges on early Saturday morning to dismiss charges against the four Iranians. Dozens of Iranians have been charged with US sanctions violations since 2008.
Iranian officials had called on President Barack Obama's administration to pardon Iranians imprisoned in the United States on sanctions-related charges.
Iranian officials have met recently with some of the prisoners held in the United States to see if they would be willing to return to Iran if a swap was agreed, said a person familiar with the cases who asked not to be identified.
US Secretary of State John Kerry had insisted during the nuclear talks that the Obama administration wanted to keep separate the issue of the Americans being held in Iran, while calling on Tehran to release them and drop all charges.
He has said that he didn't want the US prisoners to be "hostage" to the nuclear negotiations.