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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2016.

REUTERS

In a whirlwind weekend of prisoner swaps, sanctions lifted and billions of dollars unfrozen, Iran and the United States opened a new era in the still-vexed relationship between two long-standing adversaries.

President Barack Obama hailed the breakthrough – he has been seeking better relations with Tehran since his first weeks in the White House seven years ago – saying it made the world safer.

Tehran will not "get its hands on a nuclear bomb," Mr. Obama said, adding it was a triumph for diplomacy and sanctions, not the military attacks advocated by many of his critics who still accuse the President of being too soft on Iran. Rather, Mr. Obama said, the breakthrough came because of "strong American diplomacy."

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Mr. Obama spoke past Tehran's ruling theocracy in a message to ordinary Iranians, especially the young. He urged them "to begin building new ties with the world" and said the United States and Iran – after decades of hostility – "have a rare chance to pursue a new path – a different, better future that delivers progress for both our peoples and the wider world."

Iranian-American relations remain bedevilled over bitter differences on Syria and Washington's ongoing accusation that Tehran backs terrorists but it was clear the decades-long standoff was over.

A "golden page" in Iranian history has been turned, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, as an array of crippling international sanctions was lifted. The lifting followed certification by international nuclear inspectors that Tehran had met onerous nuclear limitations pact obligations by rendering a plutonium reactor inoperative and curbing its uranium enrichment. Like Mr. Obama, the Iranian president suggested the complex and interlocking deals gave Iran, long treated as a pariah state by most Western governments, "new windows for engagement with the world."

Confirmation that Tehran had met the nuclear pact requirements set of an intense flurry of activity. Five U.S. citizens were released from Iranian prisons. Three, including Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief; Saeed Abedini, a Christian minister; and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, flew from Tehran to Switzerland. Two others, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari and Matthew Trevithick, were freed separately and Mr. Trevithick left Iran.

"I'm a hell of a lot better than I was 48 hours ago," Mr. Rezaian, 39, told senior Washington Post editors in a telephone call.

From Geneva, the three U.S. citizens flew to a U.S. military facility near Ramstein Air Base in Germany, often used to debrief, treat and prepare former prisoners and hostages before they meet the public. No public appearance by any of the three has been scheduled.

"I hear there's going to be a big party," Mr. Rezaian is reported to have told his editors, referring to his return to Washington.

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As the Americans were being freed in Tehran, at least seven Iranian citizens – several of them convicted of sanctions-busting – were being released from prisons across the United States. All had been granted clemency by Mr. Obama as part of the deal. Some were dual nationals. It was not clear if any planned to return to Iran.

The prisoner swap was only the most visible element in a complex set of brokered deals. The Obama administration also announced it was freeing $1.7-billion (U.S.) in Iranian funds frozen since 1981. The money, originally $400-million, now vastly grown with interest, dates from a military purchase account dating back to the era of the Shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But even as international sanctions were being lifted, Washington was slapping Tehran with new ones arising out of an October test of new long-range missiles. Eleven additional Iranian banks and individuals were banned from the U.S. banking system, the State Department announced Sunday.

"Iran's ballistic missile program poses a significant threat to regional and global security," said Adam Szubin, the State Department's senior official for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Iran's angry reaction echoed the long-standing enmity between the two countries. "Iran's missile program has never been designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Ansari said.

"The U.S. sanctions ... have no legal or moral legitimacy," he added. "America sells tens of billions of dollars of weaponry … used in war crimes against Palestinian, Lebanese and most recently Yemeni citizens."

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Iran "will respond to such propaganda stunts and disruptive measures by more robustly pursuing our lawful missile program," Mr. Ansari said.

The nuclear limitation pact which underpinned the breakthrough came after Mr. Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected President in 2013. But Mr. Rouhani was careful to credit Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose approval was crucial for any deal with the United States – still routinely referred to as the Great Satan.

"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," Mr. Rouhani said.

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