Yes, the news thus far this weekend is looking more and more like All Iran All The Time. No sooner did we finish talking about the early lifting of sanctions on Tehran by Barack Obama and the wider implementation of the nuclear deal to come, the news wires are buzzing with word that Iran has released four prisoners. The most high profile is the Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, held for more than a year. (The Guardian)
Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist imprisoned in Iran for more than a year, has been released along with three other dual-nationality prisoners as Tehran prepares to implement a historic nuclear agreement with western leaders.
Ahead of senior diplomats announcing the lifting of sanctions on Iran later on Saturday, Tehran’s prosecutor said four dual nationals had been released. The move is believed to be part of a prisoner swap with the US.
The closed-door trial of Rezaian began in May when he appeared before a hardline judge on charges of espionage, collecting confidential information and spreading propaganda against the Islamic republic.
In addition to Rezaian, there are unconfirmed reports that the other three hostages being set free are US Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and a fourth person who was not initially named. There was early speculation that it might be businessman Siamak Namazi, but other names have been floated as well, including Nosratollah Khosrawi. There’s no point trying to lock them down until somebody sees them in person. No matter the circumstances, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s good to get these folks out of a foreign prison, so there’s at least some bright news reaching us. But we also can’t ignore the obvious question of what this deal wound up costing us.
CNN and a few other outlets are falling all over themselves in a rush to point out how this is a “game changer” and how John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Iran must be really bringing them around to a reasonable position. But that rosy outlook ignores the fact that Iran didn’t just decide to let these folks go out of the goodness of their hearts. First and foremost, Iranian news outlets are definitely describing this as a prisoner swap. In other words, Kerry didn’t negotiate this as part of the nuclear deal, sanctions relief or anything else. In order to get these four people cut loose we had to give up something else yet again and the initial reports indicate that we had to free either six or seven of their people. (Any news coming out of Fars, the Iranian news agency, is sketchy on the best of days.) In reality, they should have released them all as part of an apology for taking ten of our sailors captive, but that’s not how Iran rolls.
So who was involved in the swap? Our record on this front isn’t exactly sterling of late. (Bowe Bergdahl anyone?) We’ve got more than a few Iranians on ice over here.Could one of them be Mannsor Arbabsiar? Do you remember the guy who was going to try to assassinate the Saudi ambassador right in Washington, DC?
An Iranian American used-car salesman from Texas at the center of a bizarre plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States was sentenced Thursday in federal court in Manhattan to 25 years in prison.
Mannsor Arbabsiar, 58, had pleaded guilty last October to a charge of murder-for-hire and two counts of conspiracy for his role in attempting to orchestrate the 2011 bombing assassination of Adel al-Jubeir while the ambassador dined at Cafe Milano, an upscale Georgetown restaurant.
Arbabsiar isn’t among this bunch according to Fars, since they’re being described as individuals who violated sanctions agreements. We may not know for a while yet, but the earliest reports from the field indicate that we had to give up six or seven prisoners to get four back.
— Arthur MacMillan (@arthurmacmillan) January 16, 2016
With the aforementioned caveats about the reliability of reports from Iran’s state sanctioned news outlet, here are the names of the Iranians being released, at least according to Fars:
The 7 Iranian inmates freed by the US have been named as Nader Modanlou, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afqahi, Arash Ghahreman, Touraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Sabounchi.
Nader Modanlou was convicted of money laundering and providing illegal satellite services to Iran. Bahram Mechanic violated the Emergency Economic Powers Act, shipping electronics components to Iran. Afqahi also shipped sensitive electronics to them. Ghahreman, of San Diego, did essentially the same. Faridi is a nepheew of Bahram Mechanic and was caught up in the same net. Ali Saboonchi (alternate spelling) was caught on related charges in Maryland.
But Nima Golestaneh is a different question entirely. He was convicted of attempting to hack into the network of a Vermont aerodynamics company and trying to steal millions of dollars in software. He’s not exactly a sanctions violator. But, again, this is only coming from Fars thus far, so it will need further confirmation.
In addition to the six or seven releases, one unconfirmed report in Iranian media says that we additionally agreed to drop another fourteen Iranians from an INTERPOL watch list. I suppose seven to four (plus more than a dozen others off the hook) is a slightly better deal than the five to one trade cut for Bergdahl, and it certainly sounds in keeping with our awesome negotiating skills. We’re supposed to be the most powerful nation on the planet. How do we keep getting the short end of the stick on these trades?
UPDATE: A fifth prisoner, Matthew Trevithick, has also been released. Details to follow.