If past is precedent, THEN when the United States returns to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and lifts sanctions against Tehran, the Biden administration may also free several Iranian prisoners convicted of proliferating weapons parts to the Islamic Republic. It would do so in return for the release of U.S.-Iranian dual nationals held hostage by the regime. Iran operates far-flung, elaborate, illicit procurement networks that the United States actively tries to shut down. America is currently prosecuting or detaining about a dozen Iranian citizens and dual nationals, most on charges of illicitly acquiring military, missile, or nuclear equipment for Tehran.
If President Joe Biden releases any of these Iranian individuals, then he will undermine law enforcement efforts and encourage proliferation. Former President Barack Obama’s approach was to trade Iranian criminals for U.S. hostages, which, of course, clearly established a reward for hostage-taking. Biden could do the same.
Since the president seems determined to proceed with lifting sanctions even though the nuclear deal’s sunset clauses ensure Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, he should instruct his negotiators in Vienna to demand Tehran release all U.S. prisoners as a pre-condition for sanctions relief.
In April, CIA Director William Burns quietly visited Iraq, where he reportedly met with several Iranian interlocutors. Afterward, news leaked of an imminent prisoner release. The State Department dismissed Iranian state media’s reporting about a cash-for-prisoner deal, but confirmed the United States had been raising the matter of Iran’s hostages.
The clerical regime currently imprisons at least five U.S.-Iranian dual nationals on false charges, such as spying and government subversion. Tehran has a longstanding policy of seizing dual Iranian nationals and citizens of Western countries to extort concessions. Most countries—including the United States—refuse to pay the ransom, and seek to secure citizens’ release through other means, such as via prisoner swaps.
If countries fail to meet the regime’s terms, however, then they run the risk that Tehran will levy new, bogus charges and hold sham trials to lengthen prisoners’ sentences, as it recently did to British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had nearly completed a five-year sentence before Iran added another year based on phony charges. In her case, the British government refuses to pay Iran a $400 million debt.
The Obama administration had swapped Iranian proliferators for Americans before and reportedly paid ransom indirectly, incentivizing Tehran to continue taking prisoners. The same people, who now work in the Biden administration, may do so again.
In 2011, the Obama administration secured the release of two American hikers via $1 million in bonds paid to Iran by the sultan of Oman. The administration said the sultan did so using his own funds. Over the next two years, the administration expedited the release of at least three other Iranian detainees, one of whom had not even begun serving a prison sentence. Starting in 2014, the administration also reportedly tried to slow cases against Iranians within the U.S. legal system.
In January 2016, when President Obama announced the implementation of the nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he revealed that Washington had released seven Iranians whom the United States had either prosecuted or investigated for sanctions violations. The seven men were serving time in prison, awaiting trial or extradition to the United States, or nearing sentencing for illicitly procuring proliferation-sensitive commodities and violating sanctions
In return, Iran released four Americans. Despite Washington’s denial that it paid a ransom for the hostages, the Obama administration reportedly arranged to fly $400 million in foreign currency to Iran. Tehran likewise denied receiving a ransom but likely viewed the payment as such. Politico subsequently revealed more damaging information, noting the Obama administration’s additional decision to drop charges and foreign arrest warrants against fourteen other illicit procurement agents—some part of major Iranian proliferation networks.
The Trump administration, for its part, agreed to two prisoner deals in 2019 and 2020, while downplaying the offenses committed by the Iranians. To secure the freedom of U.S.-Chinese national Wang Xiyue and another U.S. permanent resident and Lebanese citizen, the United States dropped charges against an Iranian scientist and two researchers accused of sending biological proteins to Iran for medical research. The administration also swapped another Iranian doctor for U.S. Navy veteran Michael White. The doctor was under U.S. indictment for financial violations and sending a medical item to Iran without an export license.
When Iran takes hostage U.S. citizens or dual nationals, the regime routinely subjects them to brutal prison conditions, harsh interrogations, and psychological and physical torture, and coerces them into making false confessions. Iranian citizens or dual nationals prosecuted in the United States, by contrast, are given access to a free defense, if needed, and permitted fair trials and even appeals. They have clear fines or prison sentences, not arbitrary sentences that expand on command.
Moreover, Iranian prisoners are not tried and held on false charges in the United States, but as a result of painstakingly built trade control and sanctions cases. With prisoner releases, U.S. presidents wipe away years of work done by investigators and prosecutors. In many cases, U.S. law enforcement agents have lured Iranian proliferators to third-party countries in intricate sting operations, extradited them with the assistance of U.S. allies, and prosecuted them in hard-won cases.
If the Biden administration repeats past practice and swaps Iranian proliferators, a potential candidate for a new prisoner deal, for example, could be Merdad Ansari, a member of a major Iranian illicit procurement network headquartered in Dubai. U.S. law enforcement agents tracked Ansari for years and successfully broke up other parts of his network. Last year, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations almost certainly lured Ansari to the country of Georgia where authorities arrested and extradited him to the United States. In May, a U.S. district court convicted Ansari on charges of acquiring equipment with military, missile, and nuclear uses for Iran. Yet the Biden administration could release him, undercutting years of work by many vital U.S. agents and legal officials.
Another candidate for a swap is Reza Olangian, an Iranian citizen convicted by the United States for buying anti-aircraft missiles for Tehran. Olangian was also lured by U.S. agents, directly from Iran to Estonia, another friendly extradition country. In 2018, a U.S. court sentenced Olangian to twenty-five years in prison—one of the longest sentences a U.S. court has ever levied against an Iranian proliferation agent. Courts typically mete out sentences of fewer than five years, making Olangian’s conviction a groundbreaking precedent toward obtaining tougher sentences for illicit procurement violations.
With time, prisoner releases will have a chilling effect on the willingness of U.S. investigators and prosecutors to build cases against Iranian proliferators. Such deals also provide the Islamic Republic’s illicit agents with the impression that they can break U.S. laws with impunity. If arrested, the agents would understandably believe that Tehran will eventually arrange their freedom.
Prisoners for Sanctions Relief
President Biden’s effort to reconstitute the JCPOA and lift sanctions is a misguided policy, representing a strategic mistake with lasting consequences for Middle East stability, the security of U.S. allies and partners, and weapons proliferation. If he is intent on proceeding, at a minimum, then the president should put Iran on notice that it must release all American hostages as a condition for sanctions relief, and not in return for Washington freeing more legitimately prosecuted Iranian proliferators. As a result of the Trump administration’s 2018–2020 maximum-pressure campaign, the Biden administration still holds massive leverage against Tehran. In particular, it retains the ability to push the Islamic Republic’s economy to the brink if it does not agree to Washington’s terms.
Wang, the U.S. dual national Iran released in 2019, argues against further rewards for Tehran’s hostage-taking. Wang’s Iranian interrogator candidly told him that the clerical regime detained him “for the sole purpose of achieving a deal with the U.S. to release Iranian prisoners and frozen assets.” Swapping prisoners and sending cash will only encourage Tehran to continue this practice.
In addition to demanding the release of U.S. citizens and dual nationals held by the clerical regime, the Biden administration should condition sanctions relief on Tehran’s termination of hostage-taking. The United States’ European allies, currently negotiating alongside Washington, would be wise to demand the same.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.