As the United States and Iran try to finalize a prisoner deal that has taken significant steps forward this month, one element of it remains as obscure as ever: Which, if any, Iranians detained or prosecuted in the U.S. on federal charges might be traded for five Americans held by Tehran?
Since the Biden administration and Iran began in May 2021 what they have said are indirect prisoner negotiations, Tehran has declined to name the Iranians it alleges are unjustly detained in the U.S., despite repeatedly demanding their release in public statements.
That was the case again on August 10, when Iran said it took a step toward freeing five Americans whom Washington has accused Tehran of wrongfully imprisoning, by transferring those Americans to house arrest.
Iranian state media said the Americans would be allowed to leave Iran at the conclusion of a deal in which the U.S. would make two concessions: releasing five Iranians who they assert were jailed on "false" charges of circumventing U.S. sanctions, and unblocking $6 billion in Iranian assets that had been frozen in South Korean banks under those sanctions.
The Biden administration has said the deal will enable Iran to regain access to the $6 billion only to buy humanitarian goods such as food and medicine under U.S. oversight. It has not said anything about freeing or dropping cases against Iranian citizens charged with U.S. federal crimes.
VOA has identified 11 Iranians currently in U.S. detention or facing prosecution on federal charges who could be on Iran's wish list for a prisoner exchange. Their identities were drawn from U.S. Justice Department and federal judiciary records and contacts with U.S. officials.
The Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a VOA email asking whether any of the 11 individuals are on Iran's wish list.
VOA sent the names of the same individuals to the State Department seeking confirmation of whether Iran has asked the U.S. to include any of them in a prisoner swap. A State Department spokesperson responded Thursday, saying, "This is an ongoing, sensitive process, so we are not in a position to discuss further details at this time."
Six of the identified individuals are Iranian American dual nationals: Manssor Arbabsiar, Niloufar "Nellie" Bahadorifar, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Behrouz Mokhtari, Reza Olangian and Erfan Salmanzadeh. Two of them are Iranians with U.S. permanent residency: Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi and Amin Hasanzadeh. And three are Iranians with no legal status in the U.S.: Mehrdad Ansari, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Malek Mohammad Balouchzehi.
Three of the 11 individuals are on supervised pretrial release: Afrasiabi, Hasanzadeh and Kafrani. Four are serving sentences in federal prisons: Ansari, Arbabsiar, Kashani and Olangian. Two are in post-sentencing detention awaiting transfer to federal prisons: Mokhtari and Salmanzadeh. Of the remaining two, Bahadorifar is on supervised post-sentencing release for planned medical treatments pending surrender to prison in October, while Balouchzehi is in federal detention pending sentencing in October.
Mokhtari, who was sentenced in July to a three-year prison term, had subsequently remained on supervised release at his northern Virginia home pending surrender to prison when authorities rearrested him on August 17.
Court records seen by VOA cite prosecutors as saying FBI agents searched Mokhtari's home that day and found documents showing he applied earlier this month for a new Iranian passport but had not yet received it from Iran's Interests Section in Washington. The prosecutors said Mokhtari also told the agents that he planned to travel to Iran in the near future, in what would have been a violation of his bond and release conditions.
All but two of the 11 Iranians were arrested on federal charges of violating U.S. or international sanctions against Iran or providing Tehran with other forms of illicit help. Of the two who were not, Balouchzehi was convicted of international drug trafficking, and Salmanzadeh was convicted of using a weapon of mass destruction to detonate an explosive at his Texas home.
In a Wednesday phone interview with VOA, Nizar Zakka, president of U.S. nonprofit Hostage Aid Worldwide (HAW), said Iran is publicly calling for the release of five Iranians in the U.S. to show that it cares about its citizens and not just about securing billions of dollars of funds. But he said Tehran has not named the individuals because they include Iranians who have U.S. citizenship or residency and are likely to stay in the U.S. if released from federal detention or supervision.
"It would look bad if Tehran named the individuals and those people do not want to return to Iran," he said.
Zakka is a Lebanese American who was imprisoned in Iran from 2015 to 2019 on what the U.S. said were bogus charges. He founded HAW in 2020 to advocate for the release of other people unjustly detained around the world.
Zakka said he doubts any of the Iranians charged with the more serious crimes in the U.S. will be included in a prisoner swap. As an example, he cited Arbabsiar, who was sentenced in 2013 to 25 years in prison for participating in a 2011 plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
"Regarding the individuals whom the Iranians care about freeing the most, they know it would be out of the question for any U.S. administration to release them," Zakka said.
Andrea Stricker, a U.S. researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told this week's edition of VOA's Flashpoint Iran podcast that even the Iranians charged with lesser U.S. offenses are important for Tehran to try to free.
"Those Iranians may seem like the little fish, but the regime thinks they are the big fish," she said. "They represent the nuts and bolts of the Iranian weapons system, so the regime tries to protect them."
Stricker said it may be more palatable for the Biden administration to grant early releases to Iranians nearing completion of their sentences, such as Ansari and Kashani, whose prison terms end in December and February respectively. But she said the U.S. would be sending a harmful message by doing so.
"First, there is no equivalence between the Iranians who act as illicit procurement agents, engage in terrorism and get fair trials in the U.S. legal process, and the Americans who are innocently abducted by Iran just for visiting their families or carrying out academic studies," Stricker said.
"Second, it would be a shame if all of the work by U.S. law enforcement to prosecute those Iranians is disrupted, and painstaking investigations and sting operations are wiped away [by a prisoner exchange]," she added. "It would set a chilling precedent for investigators and prosecutors to do the work and go after these folks."
Stricker said she was sensitive to the desire of the families of the Americans held by Iran for the U.S. to do anything it can to bring their loved ones home.
"Rather than encouraging further hostage-taking by swapping people and in effect paying a ransom," she said, "a U.S. administration should demand that no more hostage-taking occurs and threaten extremely negative consequences for Iran if it does."