WASHINGTON -- Speaking from the White House, President Barack Obama on Sunday credited "smart, patient and disciplined" diplomacy for reaching a deal to reduce Iran's nuclear program and secure the release of four Americans unjustly held in that nation, including a former U.S. Marine from Flint, Amir Hekmati.
"This is a good day because once again we're seeing what is possible with strong American diplomacy," said Obama, who added that he and Secretary of State John Kerry used every opportunity in meetings with Iranian officials over the lifting of sanctions against that country to press for the release of Hekmati, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and the others.
As the Free Press reported, Hekmati, who has been held in an Iranian prison for more than four years on what his family and American officials maintained was a false charge of espionage, flew out of Iran on Sunday, headed to Germany on a Swiss aircraft, according to officials. Hekmati's sister, Sarah; her husband, Dr. Ramy Kurdi and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, were to travel to Germany later Sunday to meet him.
The aircraft carrying Hekmati and the others landed in Geneva, Switzerland, en route to its final destination in Germany before noon eastern U.S. time.
"I gave these families my word, a vow, that we would do everything in our power to obtain their release," Obama said in a statement from the White House. "Yesterday, these families finally got the news they had been waiting for."
Mentioning Hekmati by name and saying he and the others "endured an absolute nightmare," Obama said of the four prisoners, "At long last they can stand tall and breathe deep the air of freedom."
Hekmati, Rezaian and possibly other Americans released as part of a swap with Iran were also on the flight headed to Landstuhl, Germany, an official with knowledge of the flight told the Free Press, speaking on background because the information hadn't been made public yet. But it was believed that not all of the Americans had left Iran.
Earlier Sunday, a senior Obama administration official confirmed that at least some of the four detainees who had been released Saturday in advance of the formal lifting of international sanctions on Iran under terms of a multilateral nuclear agreement had left the country. But in that confirmation, the administration official said only detained U.S. citizens "who wished to depart Iran" had left, suggesting some may not have gone.
An Idaho pastor, Saeed Abedini, and a businessman, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, were also among those released in the swap with the U.S. Another official with knowledge of the flight confirmed for the Free Press that Hekmati and Rezaian were on the plane to Germany, where they would undergo medical evaluations.
There was no immediate word yet on Hekmati's condition after some 4 1/2 years in an Iranian prison.
Kerry, in Vienna, Austria, made the announcement of the prisoner releases official on Saturday evening only moments after a United Nations agency watchdog group certified Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal.
Hekmati was taken into custody in 2011 while visiting relatives in Iran. Initially charged with espionage, he was sentenced to death. His term was later reduced after the charges were changed, but both the U.S. government and the Hekmati family have resolutely denied that Amir was a spy.
Hekmati's family, who were not available by phone or at their home to comment Saturday, posted a statement on their Facebook page Saturday afternoon saying, 'We thank everyone for your thoughts during this time. There are still many unknowns. At this point, we are hoping and praying for Amir's long-awaited return."
Kildee's office on Sunday morning announced a media availability at 10:45 a.m. Sunday in advance of flying with Sarah Hekmati and her husband overseas "to be with Amir and bring him home."
"Amir, I cannot wait to meet you for the first time, give you a big hug and welcome you home," said Kildee, who has continuously pushed Congress, the White House and others to work toward Hekmati's release.
During negotiations over a deal to lift longstanding sanctions on Iran in exchange for it greatly reducing its nuclear program, Obama administration officials pointedly noted they would not make the release of the prisoners a condition in the agreement, which they believed could be seen as giving legitimacy to their incarceration.
But Obama said Sunday he and other officials used every meeting to push Iran to release the incarcerated Americans.
He also said the nuclear deal is working and that, under its regime of inspections and requirements, Iran doesn't have enough material for a single nuclear bomb and that the core of a nuclear reactor has been pulled out and filled with concrete.
"Under the nuclear deal," Obama said, "Iran will not get its hands on a nuclear bomb." But he said there remain stark differences between the two nations and he again called on the nation and its leaders to cease taking a threatening stance toward Israel and sowing unrest in the region.