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U.S. Releases Convicted Felons for Hostages Held by Iran

Four high-profile Americans who were being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison have been freed, U.S. officials announced on Saturday, although two other U.S. nationals will remain incarcerated in Iran. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has agreed to release seven Iranians currently in American custody and to drop its pursuit of 14 more from Interpol’s watch list. Citing U.S. officials, the Wall Street Journal reported that “most of these cases were tied to violations of U.S. export laws and the sales of dual-use equipment that could be used in Iran’s military or nuclear program.”

The four freed Americans include Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who was arrested, along with his wife, during a nighttime raid by Iranian secret police in July 2014. Rezaian, who has been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison, a regime torture center, will now be allowed to leave Iran. His Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, will be permitted to join him.

“The prisoner-swap maneuvering showed that, for Iran, Rezaian’s innocence was “immaterial” and that what mattered more was whether he could be used to extract political concessions from the United States,” the Post argued in its most recent submission to the U.N. working group on arbitrary detention.

The three other Americans were named as Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran from Arizona, Saeed Abedini, a former Muslim who worked as a Christian pastor in Iran, and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, a businessman. Later in the day, U.S. officials said that Iran had released a fifth American, exchange student Matthew Trevithick.

Hekmati was arrested in 2011 while visiting relatives in Iran. He was charged with spying for the CIA and ultimately sentenced to death in 2012, though his penalty was commuted to 10 years in prison after a retrial. In April, Hekmati dictated a letter to relatives in which he described the jailing of Americans by Iran as “serial hostage taking.” That same month, his family told Fox News that the former Marine endured continuous torture, including being whipped, assaulted with electric shocks, drugged with lithium, and falsely told that his mother had been killed.

Pastor Abedini spent almost four years in prison for allegedly serving as a spiritual leader to underground communities of Muslim converts to Christianity, who face severe discrimination at the hands of the Tehran regime. In a similar case in 2013, another Iranian-American pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, was released after spending three years in prison for running afoul of the religious authorities.

Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, thanked “the millions of people who have stood with us in prayer during this most difficult time.” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice that has represented the Abedini family, asserted that “Pastor Saeed should never have been imprisoned in the first place. He spent more than three years in an Iranian prison.”

Despite a nuclear deal that will deliver up to $150 billion in sanctions relief into the coffers of the Iranian regime, U.S. negotiators were unable to convince the Iranians to release the two remaining Americans in Iranian custody. Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared on the Iranian island of Kish in 2007. A video of him wearing an orange prison uniform surfaced three years later. Siamak Namazi, an oil industry executive, was arrested in October 2015 and accused of espionage; according to his family, formal charges are yet to be brought against him.

Namazi is a financial backer of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a lobby group that has been praised by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for its “welcome” help in promoting the regime’s interests in Washington. However, NIAC has been largely silent on the case since expressing concern over Namazi’s detention. In a statement released today, NIAC President Trita Parsi offered fulsome praise for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts. A call for Namazi’s release did not even make it into the body of the statement; a rather non-committal footnote ­– “NIAC had earlier been informed that Siamak Namazi was included in the swap. Later reports have contradicted that. NIAC encourages Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to continue to work for the release of Namazi” – was deemed sufficient.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that Namazi remains in jail for his charges are financial, and not political.”

The partial release of innocent Americans convicted and effectively held hostage by Iran’s theocratic judiciary – branded a “triumph of diplomacy” by NIAC ­– has resulted in the Obama administration releasing seven Iranians – six of whom hold dual U.S. citizenship – charged with involvement in terrorism and smuggling related to Iran’s illicit nuclear activities. According to Fars, the seven Iranians are Nader Modanlou, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahreman, Touraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh, and Ali Sabounchi.

Maryland resident Modanlou was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 for providing satellite-related services to Iran, which helped Tehran launch its first observation satellite in 2005. Mechanic was arrested in April 2015 for conspiring to send sensitive electronics to Iran’s defense and nuclear agencies. Faridi, Mechanic’s nephew, was also implicated in the case, as was Afghahi, whose indictment stated that he and Mechanic would obtain lists of goods wanted in Iran and ship them to a company in Taiwan, which would forward them on to Turkey and from there to Iran.

Ghahreman was convicted in April 2015 for conspiring to buy marine navigation and military electronic equipment and ship it to Iran. Golestaneh, a hacker, pleaded guilty last month to participating in a cyber-attack against a U.S. defense contractor. Sabounchi was indicted in 2013 for attempting to illegally provide Iran with U.S.-made industrial products, some of which are used for military purposes. The goods in question were worth several millions of dollars.

“Iran released hostages, [it] did not free prisoners,” Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies commented on Twitter. “The US did not free prisoners, it released convicted felons. Don’t call this a prisoner swap.”

Simultaneously, the State Department confirmed that “The United States also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.” Two of the red notice subjects are senior executives at Mahan Air, which the U.S. has accused of shipping arms to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp, as well as the Lebanese Islamist organization Hezbollah and forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Critics of the Iran deal have censured the Obama administration for legitimizing the capture of innocent hostages by engaging in a “prisoner” exchange involving convicted felons. One U.S. official was careful to describe today’s deal with Iran’s rulers as a “one-time arrangement” – and “not a precedent for the future.”

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that the release of the American hostages was prompted not by Iranian goodwill, but by the promise of billions in frozen assets.

The White House and State Department might celebrate the release of American hostages, but in reality the release is less an epiphany on the part of Iran that hostage-taking is wrong than it is that hostage-taking is profitable. Not only does Iran effectively get $25 billion per hostage, but it also wins the release of seven Iranians imprisoned in the United States. Iranians who were detained not for the “crime” of being a newspaper reporter, as in the case of Jason Rezaian, or a Christian, as in the case of Saeed Abedini, but because they actively sought to smuggle sensitive technology in circumvention of sanctions and law.

Make no mistake: we negotiated with terrorists, and the terrorists won. There is no change of heart among the Islamic Republic leadership. Neither Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei nor his “Mr. Fix-It,” President Hassan Rouhani, have changed their tune and foresworn the behavior which led Iran to become an international pariah. Rather, what we see is a pragmatic desire in Tehran to profit and to imply moral equivalence between the American hostages held in Iran and those Iranians caught seeking to subvert the United States. The only question now is how long it will be before the next American is seized in Iran and whether, with the precedent set by Obama and Kerry, the United States will be able to afford the price.

[Photo: Washington Post / YouTube ]