(This is the most thorough summary I've read about today's prisoner swap and the activity leading up to the event today:)
Fourteen months ago, President Obama authorized a top-secret, second diplomatic channel with Tehran to negotiate freedom for Americans who had disappeared or been imprisoned in Iran. It was a high-risk diplomatic gamble. The initiative grew out of nuclear negotiations, launched in the fall of 2013, between Iran and the world’s six major powers. On the margins of every session, Wendy Sherman, the top American negotiator, pressed her Iranian counterparts about the American cases. The Iranians countered with demands for the release of their citizens imprisoned in the United States for sanctions-busting crimes. More than a year of informal discussions between Sherman and her counterpart, Majid Takht Ravanchi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry official in charge of American and European affairs, led to an agreement, in late 2014, that the issue should be handled separately—but officially—through a second channel. After debate within the Administration, Obama approved the initiative. But it was so tightly held that most of the American team engaged in tortuous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were not told about it.
What heightened the risk was the fact that the new Iranian team was headed by a senior intelligence official, a sharp departure from the traditional but still tentative diplomatic channels with the Iranian Foreign Ministry developed in the nuclear talks. The involvement of Iranian intelligence made prospects far more unpredictable—and potentially controversial. Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official, headed the small American team, which also included officials from the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., and the intelligence community. The meetings—facilitated by the Swiss government and often held in Geneva—repeatedly hit snags, complications, legal hurdles, and last-minute demands. The swap—officially referred to as a “humanitarian gesture”—came close to fruition three times over more than a year of secret meetings, only to collapse again and again, an Iranian official said.
The deal finally came together this morning, just as Iran and the six major powers also moved toward Implementation Day of the Iran nuclear deal. It will mark the point when the U.N. confirms that Iran has complied with terms to dismantle its program, allowing international sanctions to be lifted. Secretary of State John Kerry held one final meeting with his Iranian counterpart, in Vienna, hosted by the European Union foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini. The separate diplomatic channels happened to mature at the same pace, according to U.S. officials. The second channel accelerated after the nuclear deal was announced last July.
The United States had hoped to make the announcement of the Americans’ release this morning, but Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency preëmpted Washington with its own announcement that four Iranian-Americans imprisoned in Iran had been freed as part of a prisoner exchange, following a decision by the Supreme National Security Council. The State Department scrambled to get out its statement. “We offered clemency to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, who had been convicted or are pending trial in the United States,” it said. “The United States also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.” The number was pared down significantly from the original Iranian list, U.S. officials said. And not all the American cases against Iranians were resolved by the swap.
The release marked the end of a troubled saga that had been further politicized during the U.S. electoral season. Many Republicans had criticized President Obama for agreeing to a nuclear deal—which will give Iran access to tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues that had been locked in foreign banks because of sanctions—while Americans were still held in Iran.