Iran does not seriously want a prisoner swap with the US and instead appears to be looking for money as part of any deal to free four Americans the US calls Tehran hostages, sources say. well informed.
US and Iranian officials have been trying to negotiate a potential rare prisoner swap since last April, when they began indirect talks through mediators in Vienna to try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the states States and other world powers.
In recent years, Iranian officials have repeatedly said they want a full prisoner exchange in which the United States releases all Iranian citizens they describe as unjustly detained for reasons such as violating US sanctions against Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, speaking at a press conference on January 24, said Iran could reach “lasting” agreements on prisoner and nuclear issues in a short period of time “if there is a will on the [U.S.] side.”
Neither Iran nor the United States has released lists of Iranians detained and prosecuted by the United States.
A VOA Persian review of US Department of Justice databases found 16 Iranians in US custody or on supervised release for known or suspected federal crimes, mostly related to long-running US tensions. United and Iran. The number of Iranians detained in the United States for non-federal offenses is unknown.
In Iran, four Iranian-American dual nationals are in detention or banned from leaving the country for alleged security breaches that the United States says were fabricated so Tehran could use the Americans as currency. exchange. The Biden administration, like its predecessors, has pledged to work to bring them home.
The four are businessman Siamak Namazi, arrested in October 2015; his father and former UN official, Baquer Namazi, who was arrested in February 2016 and granted medical leave from prison in 2018 but not allowed to leave Iran; Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist arrested in January 2018; and businessman Emad Shargi, detained since December 2020.
The 16 Iranians detained in the United States or on bail under supervision for federal offenses consist of eight Iranian American nationals, four Iranian citizens who are permanent residents of the United States, and four Iranian citizens without legal status in the United States.
Of the eight Iranian-Americans, three are serving prison terms for violating US or international sanctions against Iran: Sadr Emad-Vaez, Hassan Ali Moshir-Fatemi 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 United States in 2011.
Three of the other Iranian-Americans are charged with violations of US sanctions: Faezeh Faghihi and Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, who are on bail, and Kambiz Attar Kashani, who is in custody pending a court hearing. detention following his arrest in Chicago last month. The eighth, Erfan Salmanzadeh, is in police custody undergoing psychiatric evaluation after being charged with possession of a destructive device that exploded at his home in Texas last year.
Of the four Iranian permanent residents in the United States, three are charged with violations of US sanctions: Amin Hasanzadeh and Farzeneh Modarresi, who are on provisional release under supervision, and Mohammad Faghihi, who is in pretrial detention. The fourth, political commentator Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, is on probation and charged with acting as an unregistered Iranian agent.
Of the four Iranians without legal status in the United States, Mehrdad Ansari is serving a prison sentence and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani is on provisional release under supervision, both in cases of violation of American sanctions; Milad Rezaei Kalantari is serving a prison sentence for conspiring to sell stolen credit card information online, and Malek Mohammad Balouchzehi is in pre-trial detention for conspiring to sell heroin for distribution in the United States.
Less interest than before
A source with knowledge of the issue told VOA that Iranian officials appear less interested or committed to securing the release of Iranians currently imprisoned or prosecuted in the United States than they have in discussions of previous cases. The source requested anonymity to avoid disrupting diplomacy related to the US-Iran dispute over prisoners.
Iran previously secured the release of two of its citizens detained in the United States under prisoner swap deals with the administration of Donald Trump, who preceded President Joe Biden.
In June 2020, Trump granted early release to Iranian-American doctor Matteo Taerri, also known as Majid Taheri, who served 16 months in prison for violating US sanctions on Iran and US banking laws. In return, Iran allowed US Navy veteran Michael White to return home after detaining him for 20 months on security charges deemed bogus by the United States.
In December 2019, Trump released Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, who had been detained and charged in another US sanctions violation case. In return, Iran freed Chinese-American historian Xiyue Wang from three years in prison on what the United States said were bogus security charges. This prisoner exchange took place in Zurich via Swiss mediation.
A second source – former US diplomat Barry Rosen, who was held hostage in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution – told VOA that when he met US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and European officials in Vienna last month heard that Iran was looking for money in exchange for the release of the four Americans in its custody, rather than for the United States to release the detained Iranians.
“The Iranian government doesn’t care about making a trade for its people,” Rosen said. “They think their people [detained in the U.S.] are failures and useless. Look, they want money. They are economically desperate and need it. »
Rosen, 77, met officials in Vienna during a five-day hunger strike to push for a US-Iranian deal to release the four Americans and other Westerners of Iranian descent held in Iran. He is a senior adviser to the US advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).
“Good talking point”
UANI Political Director Jason Brodsky said in a separate VOA interview that Iran’s commitment to seek the release of what it describes as its oppressed citizens in the United States is a “good topic of discussion” for Tehran.
“But they won’t admit that their priority is unfreezing Iranian assets for the preservation of the regime, because that doesn’t sell so well, publicly,” he said.
Brodsky said Iran also appears to believe it can ask the United States to pay a higher price than before for the release of the four Iranian-Americans detained because Tehran does not recognize their dual nationality and considers only Iranian criminals whose freedom Washington seeks. The two Americans released by Iran in 2019 and 2020 were not Iranian nationals.
“If the United States releases Iranian assets in exchange for the release of the four American hostages, it would incentivize Iran to take more Americans and other Western nationals hostage in the future,” Brodsky said.
It is unclear what the United States would consider giving Iran as part of a deal to free the four Americans. When a VOA Persian reporter raised the issue with a senior State Department official during a conference call on Monday, the official declined to go into detail, citing the sensitivity of the negotiations.
“For us, it is a top priority to bring the four home, and we will do nothing that would complicate their return or the treatment they are undergoing in Iran,” the US official said.
A 2019 FBI report said it was “longstanding” US policy not to pay ransoms to hostage takers.
Guita Aryan of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.