By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian thanked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday for negotiating his release from an Iranian prison in his first public appearance since leaving Iran nearly two weeks ago.
Rezaian, jailed for 18 months after being accused of espionage, was freed this month in a prisoner swap negotiated between the United States and Iran coinciding with the implementation of a deal that curbs Iran's nuclear program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Rezaian received a standing ovation from foreign dignitaries, journalists and family members at a ceremony for the opening of the Washington Post's new offices in Washington, D.C.
In brief but emotional remarks, he thanked the Washington Post leadership, U.S. officials, and his family for advocating on his behalf.
"For much of the 18 months I was in prison, my Iranian interrogators told me that the Washington Post did not exist, that no one knew my plight, and that the United States government would not lift a finger for my release," Rezaian said. "Today I'm here in this room with the very people who helped prove the Iranians wrong in so many ways."
His brother Ali, who had spoken out about his arrest, wife Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, and mother Mary, who moved to Iran to be closer to her son, attended, as did Washington Post owner and Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos.
Rezaian, who was born in California and holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, was arrested in July 2014 along with Salehi, who is Iranian. She was later freed.
Rezaian's brother and Washington Post executives led the effort to seek his release, urging the Obama administration to press the issue with Iran.
Rezaian highlighted the efforts of Kerry and Brett McGurk, a State Department envoy who conducted secret negotiations with Iran to secure the prisoner deal.
Kerry told attendees Rezaian's detention weighed heavily on U.S. officials. Four other U.S. citizens jailed in Iran were released as part of the swap, which also saw U.S. authorities grant clemency to seven Iranians held in U.S. jails or awaiting trial, mostly on sanctions-related charges.
"This gnawed at us, because we sensed the wrongfulness and we knew that Jason and others were living the consequences," Kerry said.
Kerry described the tense hours leading up to Rezaian's release, including the last-minute disappearance of Salehi and Mary Rezaian, who were supposed to be allowed to leave with him.
Kerry said he was alerted to the problem by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shortly after officials announced the implementation of the nuclear deal on Saturday, Jan. 16.
Zarif got the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani involved, and a judiciary official was awoken in the middle of the night to sign papers allowing Salehi's release, Kerry said.
Kerry said U.S. officials are continuing to try to find out what happened to Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran eight years ago and was not part of the swap. His family said in a statement this month they were "devastated" and that Levinson had been "left behind."
Another American citizen, Siamak Namazi, who was detained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in October, was also not part of the swap. Kerry told reporters on Jan. 17, a day after the swap was announced, that he had commitments from Iran that Namazi's case will be resolved and he will be freed.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)