As the United States and Iran hold indirect talks about engaging in a rare exchange of prisoners, observers have shared new insights about the little-known Iranians under U.S. detention or prosecution who could be included in a swap.
U.S. and Iranian officials have said the two sides have been discussing the prisoner issue through mediators in recent weeks, a period in which the longtime adversaries also have held indirect talks in Vienna aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Last month, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei called on the U.S. to release all Iranian prisoners who he said have been unjustly detained for violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. He did not name the prisoners or say how many there are, except to note that the number is greater than the four Americans Iran has been holding.
In a Monday statement sent to VOA Persian, a State Department spokesperson said the U.S. is in "active, indirect discussions" to seek the release of the four Iranian American dual nationals whom the official accused Iran of holding for political leverage.
The four include businessman Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015; his father and former U.N. official Baquer Namazi, who was detained in February 2016 and has been on a medical furlough from prison since 2018; Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist who was arrested in January 2018; and businessman Emad Sharghi, who was detained in December 2020.
The U.S. official said the Biden administration is treating the issue of detainees independently from the Vienna talks about the 2015 nuclear deal and wants to resolve it as soon as possible. But the official gave no direct response to a VOA question about whether the U.S. is willing in principle to release Iranians in exchange for the four Americans.
There is no official U.S. list of Iranian citizens under U.S. prosecution or detention. A VOA Persian review of Justice Department databases found there are at least 13 Iranians in detention or subject to court-ordered restrictions on their movements for alleged or proven federal crimes. The number of Iranians in U.S. detention for other offenses is unknown.
The 13 Iranians include seven Iranian American dual nationals, two Iranian citizens with U.S. permanent residency and four Iranian citizens with no legal status in the U.S.
Of the seven Iranian Americans, three of them are serving prison sentences for violating U.S. or international sanctions against Iran: Behrooz Behroozian, Mehdi "Eddie" Hashemi and Reza Olangian. A fourth, Manssor Arbabsiar, is serving a prison sentence for conspiring with Iranian officials in a foiled plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. in 2011. Hashemi is the closest of the four inmates to his release date, scheduled for June 4.
Two other Iranian Americans, Hassan Ali Moshir-Fatemi and Sadr Emad-Vaez, have been ordered to report to prison by May 27 to begin serving sentences in a U.S. sanctions violation case, while a third person convicted in the same case, Emad-Vaez's wife, Pouran Aazad, was sentenced in January to one year of probation involving supervision of her home and restrictions on her travel.
The two Iranian U.S. permanent residents under prosecution are on pretrial supervised release from detention. They include Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a political commentator charged with acting as an unregistered Iranian agent, and Amin Hasanzadeh, an engineering researcher charged with conspiring to transfer technology to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Of the four prosecuted Iranians with no legal status in the U.S., two are in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending the outcome of legal proceedings in U.S. sanctions violation cases. They include Mehrdad Ansari, who was convicted on May 7 and is due to be sentenced on September 1, and Arash Yousefi Jam, whose trial is not due to begin until next month at the earliest.
The third prosecuted Iranian, Seyed Sajjad Shahidian, was sentenced in October 2020 to time served for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and to two years of supervised release. The fourth, Milad Rezaei Kalantari, is serving a prison sentence for conspiracy to sell stolen credit card information online. He is the only one of the 13 federally prosecuted Iranians whose case does not involve providing illicit help to Iran.
The release of Iranians like Kalantari, prosecuted or convicted by the U.S. for offenses unrelated to sanctions violations, is not a priority for Iran, said former U.S. Congressman Jim Slattery, who has long-running contacts with Iranian officials.
Slattery worked with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to encourage their Iranian contacts to reach agreements with the previous Trump administration on two prisoner exchanges in December 2019 and June 2020, each involving the release of one prisoner by the two sides.
"The priority for the Iranian government would be to obtain the release of Iranian citizens who are being held in the United States for alleged sanction violations," Slattery said in a VOA Persian interview. "They would probably be less concerned with someone whom they perceive as being convicted of a legitimate criminal offense in the United States," he added.
In separate comments to VOA Persian, an American source with knowledge of the negotiations that led to the two previous prisoner swaps said Iran cares just as much about freeing the Iranian Americans under U.S. prosecution and detention as it does about freeing the other Iranians, because Tehran does not recognize any of its citizens as having dual nationalities. The source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Iranian officials also have stated previously that they do not mind if Iranian Americans or Iranian U.S. permanent residents decide to stay in the U.S. after being released.
"It still would be the case that the Iranian government released an Iranian national from an American prison," the source said.
While the Biden administration, which took office in January, has not stated whether it is considering releasing any Iranians in return for the four Americans held by Iran, Elliott Abrams, the prior administration's special representative for Iran, told VOA Persian he would support more prisoner swaps.
"It would be very distasteful, because the Americans are hostages who were put in jail by Iran to be hostages, whereas the Iranians in prison in the United States are people who were convicted in a court of law. Nevertheless, we do want to get our fellow citizens back," Abrams said.
The source who spoke to VOA said the Biden administration will not accept Iran's demand to free all Iranians under prosecution and detention, particularly those convicted of violent crimes.
Regarding which Iranians the U.S. might release, Abrams said those who have served most of their sentences or who are on supervised release from detention due to the pandemic would be "a little more palatable."
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching and VOA Persian's Hossein Ghazanfari contributed to this report.