Amir Hekmati, one of four Americans freed Saturday after spending years in an Iranian prison, said he feels "blessed" and that his release came as a "surprise."
"I was at a point where I had just sort of accepted the fact that I was going to be spending 10 years in prison," he told reporters on Tuesday in Landstuhl, Germany, where he and his fellow prisoners had been flown by private jet. "So, this was a surprise, and I feel extremely blessed to see my government do so much for me and the other Americans."
Hekmati, a former Marine arrested on suspicion of espionage during a 2011 trip to Iran to see his grandmother, was freed alongside Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari as part of a negotiated prisoner exchange. Separately, a fifth American, student Matthew Trevithick, was also released.
The deal between Washington and Tehran came under criticism from many Republican presidential contenders, but Hekmati said he was grateful to the president for agreeing to the swap after years of efforts to free the men.
"The Iranian officials, who were our captors essentially, were amazed and had asked us, 'Why is it that they’re working so hard for you?', and I just said, 'Well, that’s America and they love their citizens.'"
As the New York Times reported, the men's exit from Iran on a Swiss government private jet was delayed for several hours as officials detained the wife and mother of reporter Rezaian without explanation. It was only after frantic negotiations, including calls made personally from Secretary of State John Kerry to his Iranian counterpart, that the women were released and the plane took off.
"As soon as we got out of Iranian airspace, the champagne bottles were popped" Hekmati said.
Relations between Iran and the U.S. remain tense despite the successfully negotiated swap and the lifting of American sanctions as part of the formal implementation of the nuclear deal, which also occurred Saturday. The following day new sanctions were announced against Iran by the U.S. Treasury Department in connection with the country's ballistic missile program.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to remain "suspicious" of the U.S. in a letter to President Hassan Rouhani published on the Ayatollah's website.
"I stress once more that the deceptions and breaches of promises by arrogant governments, in particular, America, on [the nuclear agreement] and other issues, should not be neglected," he wrote.
Hekmati, though, has been busying himself with much simpler matters, enjoying his first steak in years and spending time with his sister and brother-in-law. He said he is looking forward to returning to American soil to see the rest of his family.
"I feel alive for the first time. It's like being born again," he said. "I feel proud to be an American."