At least eight Iranians held in U.S. prisons or who are wanted on charges were exchanged for four Americans held in Tehran on Saturday, according to court documents and people familiar with the details of the exchange.
By and large the Iranians don’t appear to be hardened criminals or spies but had been accused of violating U.S. trade sanctions on Iran.
Their release was not unexpected. Iran had been signaling for months that there were as many as 19 individuals being held in the U.S. or sought on charges, some of them dual Iranian-U.S. citizens, whom it would be willing to trade for Americans in Tehran.
On Saturday, an attorney for one of the men, Bahram Mechanic, said that he and two others had been offered pardons by President Obama. Reportedly the U.S. is either dropping charges or commuting the sentences in the cases of five other people.
A person with knowledge of the exchange, who asked not to be identified, told The Daily Beast that most if not all of the Iranians involved in the exchange crimes are expected to return to Iran.
The Daily Beast reported last year on Iranians held in the U.S. on sanctions violations whom Tehran might want to swap. Many are business owners and American citizens. With the exception of two individuals, none is serving a term longer than six years. Most were sentenced to terms of between one and four years. And some were charged with violating a complex sanctions regime that they professed in court not to fully understand.
Mechanic, along with two other men who are also being pardoned, Khosrow Afghahi and Tooraj Faridi, were charged in a conspiracy of facilitating the illegal export of high-tech microelectronics, power systems, and other commodities to Iran. According to a government indictment, the men were members of an Iranian procurement network that supplied Iran’s nuclear and defense agencies.
The names of the others who might be returned to Iran had yet to be confirmed by the U.S, but Iranian press reports included Arash Ghahreman, who is serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for violating export and money laundering laws as part of a scheme to purchase marine navigation equipment and military equipment for export to Iran.
Also reportedly being freed is Ali Saboonchi, a Maryland man and U.S. citizen who was sentenced to two years on charges of exporting American manufactured industrial products to Iran.
One possible exception to the list of sanctions violators is Nima Golestaneh, an Iranian national who pleaded guilty last year to hacking a U.S. company and attempting to steal software and business information. Golestaneh was reportedly among those being exchanged, but U.S. officials as of Saturday afternoon hadn’t confirmed the names of any of the people who were part of the swap.
While apparently none of those being released was accused of violence against the U.S. or terrorist conspiracies, the prisoner exchange is likely to draw controversy. The trade consisted of civilians, not soldiers or spies, who are usually the subjects of a swap. It also coincided with the implementation of an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons development, which President Obama sees as one of his signature foreign policy achievements but has been criticized by some lawmakers.
Two individuals with knowledge of the exchange, who also asked not to be identified, said that the prisoner swap was not part of the nuclear negotiations. However, it was pursued along a separate but parallel track led by the Iranians. It was still unclear Saturday when the final agreement was reached, but a U.S. official with knowledge of the negotiations said that on Friday afternoon, word began to trickle out that the swap was imminent.
The Obama administration has been criticized in the past for not conducting prisoners swaps to free civilians held by terrorist groups. The families held and murdered by ISIS, for example, saw a double standard in the administration's willingness to trade five Taliban prisoners, in 2014, for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The administration defended that trade as part of a long history of exchanging prisoners of war at the conclusion of an armed conflict. (The U.S. has not fully withdrawn its military forces from Afghanistan, even though Obama has said that the U.S. combat mission there has ended.)
On Saturday afternoon, the Americans who’d been held in Tehran were making their way by plane to Switzerland and then a U.S. military base in Germany.
Some saw the trade as a signs of an evolving, positive relationship between the U.S. and Iran.
"The world is a safer place today because the two pathways for Iran to build a nuclear bomb have been shut down." Senator Barbara Boxer, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
"I am greatly relieved at the release of innocent Americans and hope that this will signal a true shift in relations that would include Iran living up to all international obligations."