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Future US-Iran Prisoner Releases Could be Complicated by Who's Involved, Who Isn't

This photo released by the U.S. State Department shows Navy veteran Michael White, left, posing with Special Envoy to Iran Brian Hook at Zurich Airport in Zurich, Switzerland, June 4, 2020, after White was released from Iran.
This photo released by the U.S. State Department shows Navy veteran Michael White, left, posing with Special Envoy to Iran Brian Hook at Zurich Airport in Zurich, Switzerland, June 4, 2020, after White was released from Iran.

As the U.S. and Iran welcome the latest freeing of each other’s citizens and call for more such releases, the next deal between the longtime foes could be complicated by who is involved and who isn't.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted their approval of this week’s Swiss-mediated agreement. It saw Iran allow U.S. Navy veteran Michael White to return home almost two years after he traveled to Mashhad to meet his girlfriend, and the U.S. granting an early release to an Iranian American medical doctor, Matteo Taerri, also known as Majid Taheri, who had served 16 months in prison.

White had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on what the U.S. called trumped-up charges of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private photos on social media, while Taheri had been convicted of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and U.S. banking laws. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran and mediated the releases of the two men.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a Thursday statement saying “there is more work to do” and Washington “will not rest” until it brings home every American who he said is wrongfully detained in Iran. He singled out three: father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi and conservationist Morad Tahbaz.

But in a Friday phone briefing with reporters, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, who a day earlier accompanied White home from Zurich, the second leg of his return journey, acknowledged that winning the release of the other three Americans could be challenging. One reason, he said, is that Iran may not consider them Americans. All three are Iranian American dual nationals, and Iran has a policy of not recognizing its citizens as nationals of other countries.

“I think the [Iranian] regime probably looks at dual citizens differently than we do,” Hook said. “The way we look at it, they are all Americans and they have the right to expect our best efforts to win their freedom as well.”

No stated involvement

A second complication in achieving more U.S.-Iran prisoner releases is that two former U.S. officials who helped negotiate this week’s agreement and a deal last December have no stated involvement in trying to secure the freedom of the Namazis or Tahbaz.

The December 7 exchange involved Iran freeing Chinese American academic Xiyue Wang in return for the Trump administration releasing Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani. The swap happened in Zurich, through Swiss mediation.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson and former U.S. Representative Jim Slattery, who have long-running contacts with Iranian government figures, met with Zarif and Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Majid Takht-Ravanchi last September in New York to advocate for the release of Wang and White. Richardson and Slattery said they did so at the request of the Wang and White families.

In a Thursday phone interview with VOA Persian, Richardson, who had a second meeting with Zarif in Doha on December 15 to talk about the White case, said he maintained phone contact with the Iranian top diplomat and relayed to the Trump administration what Tehran wanted in return for releasing the Navy veteran. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed Richardson’s involvement in the negotiations, while Hook told the briefing that he had no comment on Richardson’s role.

“I have not been involved in the cases of the three Iranian Americans [held by Iran] because the families have not asked us to be,” Richardson said, referring to his foundation.

Speaking separately to VOA Persian on Thursday, Slattery said he has offered to help the Namazi and Tahbaz families. “But it is not proper for me to actively engage on the issue, without the permission of the families or their counsel,” he said.

Lack of interest

A third complicating factor to another U.S.-Iran deal is Iran’s apparent lack of interest in the release or exoneration of 16 Iranians who are either in U.S. detention, subject to home confinement after release or under federal prosecution in U.S. courts for Iran-related offenses.

Neither Zarif nor other Iranian officials have mentioned the names of any of the 16 in their occasional public statements calling for the release of Iranians prosecuted in the U.S.

Slattery said he has asked Iranian officials for a list of Iranian citizens held against their will or charged with criminal offenses in the U.S. but has not received one.

A U.S. source familiar with Richardson’s efforts to free Wang and White told VOA Persian that Iranian officials never mentioned to Richardson the names of the 16, either. But the source said it was possible the names had been referred to U.S. and Swiss officials.

VOA Persian compiled the names of the 16 Iranians through a review of U.S. Justice Department databases. They include eight Iranian American dual nationals and eight Iranian citizens, three of them with permanent U.S. residency.

The Iranian Americans include Manssor Arbabsiar, Behrooz Behroozian, Mehdi “Eddie” Hashemi, Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar, Hassan Ali Moshir-Fatemi, Reza Olangian, and husband and wife Sadr Emad-Vaez and Pouran Aazad. The other Iranians are Mehrdad Ansari, Milad Rezaei Kalantari, Behzad Pourghannad, Seyed Sajjad Shahidian, Iranian Canadian dual national Bahram Karimi and U.S. permanent residents Majid Ghorbani, Amin Hasanzadeh and Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad.

Six of the individuals have been serving sentences in federal prisons after being convicted of various crimes, namely Arbabsiar, Behroozian, Kalantari, Mohammadi-Doostdar, Olangian and Pourghannad; three, Ansari, Hasanzadeh and Shahidian, have been detained pending trial.

Of the other Iranians, five were on bail with court-ordered restrictions on their movements as they awaited sentencing for various convictions, namely Aazad, Emad-Vaez, Hashemi, Hashemi Nejad and Moshir-Fatemi; one, Ghorbani, was granted a “compassionate release” from a Washington prison in April because of ill health and was allowed to relocate to his daughter’s home in Orange County, California, with court-imposed restrictions on his movements until next February.

A U.S. prosecutor asked a judge to drop the case against Hashemi Nejad and co-defendant Karimi, who has not been arrested, on Friday. The prosecutor cited the likelihood of continued litigation over suppression of evidence. The judge had not ruled on the prosecutor’s request by late Saturday.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian service. Cindy Saine contributed from the State Department.

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