Iran appears to have shown little public or private support for 12 Iranians under prosecution or convicted of crimes in the U.S., despite pledging to work for the release of such citizens four months ago in another potential prisoner swap with Washington.
The last, rare prisoner exchange between the two longtime foes happened December 7, when Iran freed Chinese American academic Xiyue Wang in return for the U.S. releasing Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani. The swap happened in Zurich through Swiss mediation.
Two days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Tehran was ready for a further “comprehensive prisoner exchange” with Washington. A day after that, his aide Mohsen Baharvand told Iranian state news agency IRNA that there were “around 20” other Iranians whom Tehran was seeking to release from U.S. custody.
U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, told a December 10th forum in Washington that he viewed Baharvand’s comments as a “positive … first step” that could lead to the release of “all innocent Americans” detained in Iran.
In the four months since then, Hook has said U.S. officials are working continuously for the release of four Americans whom Washington has accused Tehran of unjustly jailing on trumped up charges: Navy veteran Michael R. White and three Iranian-American dual nationals — father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz.
As Iran’s coronavirus pandemic worsened and spread to its prison system in March, U.S. officials added urgency to their calls for the Americans to be released to safeguard their health. Iranian authorities granted White a prison furlough on March 19 after he exhibited coronavirus symptoms, but they have refused to let him leave the country or free the other Americans.
U.S. officials also have been pressing Iran to resolve the case of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran on a 2007 visit that U.S. media later revealed was part of a rogue CIA mission. Last month, the Trump administration said it believed that Levinson may have died “some time ago.”
Iran, by contrast, has said little publicly since early December about the Iranians whom it wants to be freed from U.S. prisons or prosecution. Nor has it named the individuals.
In the only recent comment by an Iranian official, Zarif posted a March 27 tweet in which he shared a news article about Sirous Asgari, an Iranian scientist acquitted by a U.S. court last November of stealing U.S. trade secrets. Without mentioning names, Zarif added a note accusing the U.S. of taking “several Iranian scientists hostage without charge or on spurious sanctions charges” and called for their release. It was not clear whom Zarif may have been referring to besides Asgari.
Since his November acquittal, Asgari has been held by U.S. immigration authorities and flown between different detention facilities pending deportation to Iran. U.S. officials have not disclosed a date for Asgari’s deportation, which news site ProPublica said appears to have been delayed by coronavirus-linked disruptions to international air travel. In an April 26 letter to a U.S. judge, Asgari’s lawyer Matthew Vogel appealed for his client to be released immediately from a facility in Winnfield, Louisiana, saying Asgari’s past health problems make him vulnerable to the virus, which already has been detected at the site.
As for the 12 other Iranians who are in U.S. prisons or on conditional release from prison, VOA Persian compiled their names through conversations with lawyers representing some of the individuals and through a review of U.S. Justice Department databases.
They include seven Iranian-American dual nationals and five 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 and husband and wife Sadr Emad-Vaez and Pouran Aazad. The other Iranians are Milad Rezaei Kalantari, Behzad Pourghannad and U.S. permanent residents Majid Ghorbani, Amin Hasanzadeh and Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad.
Of the 12 Iranians, five were serving sentences in federal prisons after being convicted of various crimes, namely Arbabsiar, Behroozian, Kalantari, Mohammadi-Doostdar and Pourghannad; while one, Hasanzadeh, was in the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service 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; while one, Ghorbani, was granted a “compassionate release” from a Washington prison earlier this month because of his 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.
In addition to its public silence on the cases of the 12 Iranians, Tehran appears to have made little effort to help them using several of the private channels available to it.
Lawyers representing some of the 12 Iranians told VOA Persian they had not heard from officials of any country about including their clients in another U.S.-Iran prisoner swap.
“I have heard nothing about Pourghannad being part of any prisoner swap,” his attorney James Neuman wrote in an April 23 email, referencing one of the two Iranian citizens without U.S. legal status who are serving time in U.S. prisons.
Former Kansas Congressman Jim Slattery, who spent months working with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to support U.S. government efforts to negotiate the December 7 swap, told VOA Persian that he also has not heard from his Iranian contacts regarding the cases of the other Iranian citizens jailed or confined in their movements by U.S. courts.
Slattery had multiple conversations with Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Majid Takht-Ravanchi and met Foreign Minister Zarif at the U.N. in New York last September in the lead up to the last deal.
“I’m surprised that when I was dealing with the swap involving Wang and Soleimani, there was no mention of these other people,” Slattery said in reference to the group of 12 Iranians.
In a statement to VOA Persian, the former New Mexico governor said he and his Richardson Center for Global Engagement have been working for more than a year-and-a-half to bring Michael White home from Iran. But he declined to address questions about Iranians who could be part of another prisoner exchange with the U.S.
The Washington embassy of Switzerland, which represent U.S. interests in Iran, also declined a request for comment on the issue.
In a message to VOA Persian, United Against Nuclear Iran policy director Jason Brodsky said Zarif’s March 27 tweet of the article about Sirous Asgari may have signaled Tehran’s interest in pursuing the Iranian scientist’s release as part of a swap for White, the Navy veteran. “There is a parallel with how the Iranian regime handled the swap of Masoud Soleimani for Xiyue Wang, with Iranian media and officials speaking publicly about a specific U.S.-based case in the lead-up to an exchange,” Brodsky said.
Slattery said he believes Iran is not interested in working for the release of Iranian American dual nationals in the U.S. At least one Iranian American jailed in the U.S. in recent years for a federal crime related to Iran, Zavik Zargarian, chose to remain in the U.S. after he was released earlier this year and had “no interest” in returning to Iran, according to an email sent by his lawyer Victor Sherman to VOA Persian.
“There could be a whole host of reasons why Iran, as is claimed, has not publicly been seeking to return all Iranians who have been charged and detained in the U.S.,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in an email to VOA. “Their nationality or citizenship status could be a factor, but may not be the determining one.”
Taleblu said that whenever Iran chooses to press for further prisoner swaps with the U.S., it may start by seeking the release of those who have less of a legal status in the U.S. “But this is only speculation about Iranian strategy,” he cautioned.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Mehdi Jedinia of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk contributed.