Deal or No Deal?

Who Does Iran Want for This U.S. Prisoner?

Iran says it wants to trade 19 of its own for a Washington Post reporter. The White House hasn’t ruled out a swap. So who are these Iranians in U.S. jails?

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

The Tehran regime didn’t just convict Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian this week on opaque, unspecified charges that his employer has called “sick” and baseless. Iran has also dangled the possibility of swapping the reporter and two other imprisoned Americans for 19 Iranians being held in the United States.

The question is, who are the 19 prisoners? The Iranians have never publicly named the individuals, but have said they are accused of violating sanctions put in place to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that, to their knowledge, Tehran has never presented the American government with a list of people it wants freed.

But a review by The Daily Beast of court documents and interviews with legal experts and U.S. officials shows that there are at least 19 people in the United States—and probably a few more—who meet Iran’s stated descriptions, and who could end up human bargaining chips if the Obama administration were to try and cut a deal to bring its citizens home.

The White House, it should be noted, hasn’t explicitly ruled out a prisoner swap.

And not all of the Iranians held here a part of some rogues gallery of spies and hardened criminals.

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.

“Some of the conduct alleged is a bit more egregious than others. But some of it’s fairly minor, though it still constitutes sanctions violations,” Erich Ferrari, an attorney who has represented some of the accused, told The Daily Beast.

Rezaian has already been held longer than Americans taken prisoner at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. And U.S. officials say Iran has no grounds to hold the others, pastor Saeed Abedini, and former Marine Amir Hekmati.

While U.S. officials said they’re focused on the return of all the Americans with no strings attached, the potential for a swap has taken on new traction following comments by Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who told reporters last month that he would work for the Americans’ release if the U.S. set the Iranians free. And on Sunday, a spokesman for the Iranian justice ministry noted that Rezaian’s verdict was “not final” and could still be appealed, an apparent signal that Iran was willing to make a deal.

The Daily Beast identified 26 recent sanctions violators who are Iranian citizens or Americans of Iranian descent. At least three have already served their sentences, and another three are awaiting trial. Ferrari said that while he hasn’t seen an official list, the number 19 that Iran has floated was about the total number of sanctions violators in U.S. custody.

One of those sanctions violators is a Maryland man named Ali Saboonchi. He was sentenced to two years for exporting “American manufactured industrial products” to Iran, including material that could be used in a nuclear plant, according to a Justice Department statement, which never outright accused Saboonchi of aiding a nuclear program. Hamid Reza Hashemi of New York received a 46-month sentence after pleading guilty to his role in a “scheme,” the Justice Department said, “to illegally export high-grade carbon fiber from the U.S. to Iran.”

The very sanctions that the accused have been charged with breaking have also now become the subject of debate in some trials.

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A federal judge postponed the trial of Mohammad Nazemzadeh, a Michigan resident who federal prosecutors accused of a conspiracy to smuggle prohibited goods, because it wasn’t clear those goods would still be banned once the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran, following the deal to open the country’s nuclear facilities to inspection.

Seyed Amin Ghorashi, a wealthy entrepreneur doing time in Virginia, has asked a court to overturn his 2012 conviction because the U.S.-made satellite equipment he helped export is now legal to sell to Iran, after a previous change to the sanctions regime.

To be sure, there are Iranians in the U.S. serving lengthy sentences for serious crimes, including stealing military secrets and information about weapons systems. Perhaps the most notorious prisoner, Mansour Arbabsiar, was sentenced in 2013 to 25 years for his role in a failed plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. at a posh Washington, D.C., restaurant.

But many of the sanctions violators who can be found in public court documents will be freed in a few years. And they didn’t commit violent crimes. That might make them prime candidates for a swap.

Greg Thielmann, a former senior State Department intelligence official who closely follows Iran’s nuclear program, told The Daily Beast that a trade could serve both countries’ interests.

“I think it’s very important to end the outrage of Rezaian and others’ incarcerations—not just because they are unjust, but will remain a serious impediment to improving relations,” he said. “Assuming that the Iranians imprisoned in the U.S. have not committed violent crimes, a swap would be a small price to pay.”

The Obama administration hasn’t explicitly ruled out a swap.

“We have been direct with the Iranians in every discussion we’ve had with them about the need to see the three Americans detained released immediately and to see the Iranians work cooperatively with us to locate Robert Levinson,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast, referring to a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 and is believed to have been kidnapped.

“Now the Iranians have been making statements about Iranians imprisoned in the United States and putting forward the idea of a prisoner exchange, and I would refer you to them regarding such statements,” the official continued. “But what I can say is we believe our citizens should be returned to the United States independent of any other matter… Within the context of our discussions with Iran, just as we have raised concerns about U.S. citizens detained in Iran, Iran too has naturally raised concerns about Iranian individuals in U.S. custody.”

Requests for comment sent to Iran’s representatives at the United Nations weren’t returned.

There may be a precedent for a prisoner exchange. In 2009, Iran secretly passed the White House names of prisoners it wanted freed as a way of testing President Obama’s commitment to improving ties between the two countries, The Wall Street Journal reported. The U.S. eventually helped with the release of four Iranians detained in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, including a convicted arms smuggler, a former diplomat, and a scientist convicted of illegal exports, and the moves helped bring about negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the Journal reported.

“Rouhani may be making this appeal today because it may have worked earlier,” David Albright and Andrea Stricker, of the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote in a recent report. (PDF) And while a swap might bring more Americans home, the authors said, it would ultimately be counterproductive.

Rouhani’s offer “is at best a cynical ploy that on the surface, may appear diplomatically convenient, but the reality is that pursuing these types of exchanges will only encourage Iran to detain more innocent Americans.”

For now, Rezaian and the other Americans wait. The U.S. hasn’t signaled that it’s ready to make a deal. But no one has said no, either.