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Expert: U.S. Released Iranian Sanctions Violators to Secure Nuclear Deal, Eroding Leverage

The Obama administration’s decision to release several high-profile Iranian prisoners in order to secure the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal undermined Washington’s ability to counter Tehran’s nuclear and missile proliferation efforts, Politico reported Monday.

In January 2016, the Obama administration released seven Iranian-born prisoners—six of whom were also U.S. citizens—convicted or accused of what a senior U.S. official called “sanctions-related offenses.” The White House portrayed the move as a modest trade-off that would bolster the nuclear agreement and secure the freedom of five Americans.

Three of the prisoners were convicted of supplying Iran with parts that could be used in advanced surface-to-air and cruise missiles, while another was serving time for conspiring to provide Iran with satellite technology and hardware. In one case, the Obama administration dropped a $10 million claim against an Iranian-born aerospace engineer who was freed as part of the deal.

The U.S. also agreed to stop seeking the extradition of 14 Iranian fugitives, including Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili, who was charged with supplying Iran with parts for nuclear applications from China between 2005 to 2012. These included sensors for centrifuges used to enrich uranium, the activity that led to sanctions on Iran.

However, while President Barack Obama said those being released were not “charged with terrorism or any violent offenses,” Politico reported that the Justice Department had accused a number of them as “posing threats to national security.” Moreover, American officials in various agencies, including the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI’s special Counterproliferation Center (CPC2), found that their efforts to crack down on Iran’s nuclear weapons and missile programs were significantly hindered by the prisoner exchange.

Many federal prosecutors and agents who spent years attempting to unearth the extent of Iran’s proliferation network were “shocked and angry” when they learned who was released and who would no longer be pursued, Politico reported.

“They didn’t just dismiss a bunch of innocent business guys,” one former federal law enforcement supervisor who investigated Iranian arms traffickers and nuclear smugglers told Politico. “And then they didn’t give a full story of it.”

“There was always a broader conceptual problem with the administration not wanting to upset the balance of the deal or the perceived rapprochement with the Iranian regime,” said Juan Zarate, an expert on sanctions and former Bush administration official who had originally supported the nuclear deal. “The deal was sacrosanct, and the Iranians knew it from the start and took full advantage when we had — and continue to maintain — enormous leverage.”

According to several Obama administration sources, requests to lure Iranian suspects into international travel in order to apprehend them were ignored by the Justice and State Departments at least six times before the nuclear deal was reached in July 2015. This meant that rare opportunities to catch these suspects and “gain insight into the workings of Tehran’s nuclear, missile and military programs” were lost, according to these sources.

“These were people under active investigation, who we wanted very badly because they were operating at such a high level that they could help us begin to find out what was happening inside the black box of how Iran’s procurement networks really operate,” Aaron Arnold, a former intelligence analyst at CPC2, told Politico. “Without that kind of strategic insight, it leaves our analysts, but more importantly, our policy-makers just guessing at what Iran is up to and how to stop it.”

“This has erased literally years — many years — of hard work, and important cases that can be used to build toward other cases and even bigger players in Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs,” said former Justice Department counterproliferation prosecutor David Locke Hall.

The decision not to pursue the 14 fugitives hurt the Obama administration’s own non-proliferation efforts.

“They had wanted all of these things prosecuted, they were on a roll, they were freaking out the Iranians and then they were told, boom, stop,” David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told Politico. “And it’s hard to get them back again. We are shooting ourselves in the foot, destroying the infrastructure that we created to enforce the laws against the Iranians.”

Albright, a former weapons inspector who is regularly in contact with federal authorities, told Politico that he was informed of several cases where the State Department refused to approve memos allowing the Justice Department to lure suspects to locations where they could be arrested.

After the prisoner swap was completed, federal authorities learned through intelligence sources that Jamili had ties to Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an official at the Natanz enrichment facility. This suggested that Jamili was more involved in Iran’s nuclear program than previously thought.

“All of a sudden, we’re no longer playing whack-a-mole, and we suddenly have this key player who is directly involved and has insider knowledge as to how this whole process works,” Arnold told Politico. “So to see him being traded away is frustrating.”

In February 2016, Federal Judge P. Kevin Castel challenged the order to drop charges against Alireza Moazami Goudarzi, one of the 14 fugitives who was charged with smuggling military parts to Iran, “unless prosecutors could justify the ‘significant foreign policy interests.'” Castel later approved the the order, according to Politico.

Earlier on during the nuclear negotiations, the Obama administration expedited the release of four Iranians, including some who were convicted of arms smuggling, from American and British prisons in order to build confidence with Iran.

[Photo: Ken Lund / Flickr ]