Iran releases American hostages in exchange for Iranian spies and criminals

Negotiating from a position of weakness — Iran releases American hostages in exchange for Iranian spies and criminals – Five Americans hostages imprisoned on concocted and phony charges in Iran have been released in exchange for an actual total of 21 Iranian criminals convicted espionage and of violating the sanctions regime.

The exchange was announced on the same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had complied with several key steps to dismantle parts of their nuclear program, triggering a lifting of sanctions that will bring the Islamic regime more than $100 billion, including interest.

Negotiations for the nuclear deal and for the release of the American hostages were not related, according to Administration officials. They took place on separate tracks. If so, this partially explains the administration’s reluctance to sanction Iran for its recent missile tests.

Administration officials confirmed the news late Saturday following reports first published in Iranian media. They include four who are part of a prisoner swap deal: Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. A fourth detainee identified by U.S. officials as Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari was also part of the deal. A fifth man — recently detained American student Matthew Trevithick — was released separately, U.S. officials said.  

In the meantime, Iran is holding at least two other Americans, but the Obama administration has not acknowledged that, despite the fact that authorities in Tehran said they would not be freeing a businessman arrested in October 2015, and remained silent on the fate of a former FBI agent who disappeared in the country since 2007.

It was unclear why Siamak Namazi, 44, an Iranian American based in Dubai, was arrested in October while visiting a friend in Tehran where he had done consultant work over the previous decade. The other hostage, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, 67, not part of the deal and his disposition remains unknown. News that Levinson had not been freed left his family distraught. They noted that, “Of course we are happy for those families, but angry and devastated,” Suzanne Halpin, the sister of Levinson’s wife, said via an email. The Levinsons have hoped for years that their father would eventually be released after a deal was reached to limit the Iranian nuclear program.

Both many American national security policy experts, along with the family believe the United States had “squandered its best opportunity for leverage in ensuring my father’s safe return home,” Levinson’s son, Daniel, wrote late last year in an article, after Iran and six world powers struck a nuclear deal. I as many still believe that the release of all Americans should have been the first and for most point of reference prior to any negotiations with Iran. It was an ominous sign that he wasn’t released with other the Americans.

The announcement came the same day the IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog announced Iran is now in compliance with a July nuclear deal. Yet, it should be noted, Iran has not signed the actual nuclear agreement. As a result, despite the release, there are many questionable concerns by both international security experts and members of Congress – both because in addition to the 21-Iranians being released, upwards of some $100 billion in economic sanctions against Iran were lifted, as part of the deal.

The Americans were released in exchange for clemency for seven Iranians indicted or imprisoned in the United States for sanctions violations, the officials confirmed. Six of the seven are dual citizens, an added concern because they will remain in the U.S. Not mentioned however, were another, 14 Iranian criminals being held on charges of espionage, trade violations, and for violating the sanctions regime, by the U.S. and Interpol on behalf of other countries, were also released and  will no longer be pursued.

Several of the released hostages have been held for years, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian who was held in captivity since 2012. In addition to Rezaian, the Americans freed Saturday included Saeed Abedini, 35, of Boise, Idaho; Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, 32, of Flint, Mich.; and Khosravi-Roodsari, U.S. and Iranian officials said. A fifth American, identified as language student Matt Trevithick, was also released Saturday, but was not part of the exchange deal. Trevithick’s parents said in a statement that he had been held for 40-days in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. A senior U.S. official said Trevithick, 30, has already left Iran.

Abedini is a Christian pastor who had been imprisoned since July 2012 for organizing small home and community churches for Christians still living in Iran, a violation of Iran’s theo-political Islamic law. Hekmati is a former U.S. Marine who spent more than four years in prison on spying charges following his arrest in August 2011 during a legal and authorized visit to see his ailing grandmother in Iran. The detention of Khosravi-Roodsari had not been previously publicized. Iranian state television identified him as a businessman. Little else was known about him.

A senior administration official said of Trevithick, “We wanted him, obviously, to be a direct part of this, and made clear to Iranians that his release would be an appropriate humanitarian gesture.” That said, to those of us who closely follow Iran, gawked; a “humanitarian gesture” from Iran? Such delusional thinking that will lead to other Americans losing their freedom any time the Iranian regime wants to hold them as future bargaining chips.

Of the seven Iranians who have been charged or convicted of espionage and trade and sanctions violations, all but one have dual Iranian-American citizenship and are mostly business people guilty of conspiracy. Iranian media lists those freed as: Nader Modanlou, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afqahi, Arash Ghahreman, Touraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Sabounchi.

Modanlou, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Maryland, was convicted in 2013 of conspiracy to provide illegal satellite services to Iran, laundering money and obstruction of bankruptcy proceedings. The scheme involved as much as $10 million dollars being transferred to Iran, for which Modanlou received 70 years in prison.

Mechanic, Faridi and Afqahi were charged in 2015 for their involvement in an Iranian spy ring tasked with illegally procuring sensitive technology which supported Iran’s nuclear program. The two men and their accomplices allegedly sent over $24 million worth of sensitive technology to Iran over five years.

Gahreman, a U.S.-Iranian dual citizen, was charged in August 2015 for attempting to provide Iran with illegal navigation equipment and radar technology for military defense systems. He was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for his crime.

Golestaneh, an Iranian student, was charged in July 2015 with hacking into the computer networks of a Vermont-based aerodynamics company, attempting to steal software worth millions of dollars.

Ali Sabounchi, a U.S. citizen, 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.

True to form, the White House refuses to acknowledge the violation of international law – not to mention human decency – in the taking of these hostages, trying them on trumped up charges, and then holding them in unspeakable conditions. For that – and many other things – Iran gets a pass.

In the end, this is yet another colossal success for Iran and an outright failure of U.S. diplomatic prowess and capability. There is no moral equivalency what so ever in this exchange of innocent hostages for 21 convicted spies … criminals working to steal U.S. technology and secrets for Iran’s nuclear weapons program. From the standpoint of espionage, they were dangerous to U.S. national security and the safety of Americans, while the released Americans, again were innocent victims of Iranian state terrorism who suffered greatly in captivity being tortured and abused. 

And while Iran got the people they wanted released, we did not. Once again, Secretary of State John Kerry show cased either his ever enduring incompetency, or perhaps worse, his questionable and underlying persistent hate for America — in negotiating yet another despicable deal. Calling it a “touchdown”, when in fact, it was pure fantasy football. Finally, and most devastating, the Obama administration lowered the bar, yet again, revealing both a precedence and a consistent failure in its negotiating ability when dealing with rogue nations, terrorist states and groups, and the world’s despots and dictators.

Jim Waurishuk, Colonel, USAF

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and special mission intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units, and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as well as in international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC -- which provides strategic and operational security analysis and assessments to governmental and private entities, as well as media organizations on national security issues, policy, and processes. He currently provides advisory and consulting services on national security, international strategic policy, and strategy assessments for the U.S. and foreign private sector and governments entities, media groups and outlets, and to political groups, forums, and political candidates. He is an author and writer providing regular commentary and opinion to national and local TV, radio networks, and for both print and online publications, as well as speaking engagements to business, political, civic and private groups on national security matters – focusing on international strategic policy and engagement, and strategic intelligence, and subject matter expertise on special mission intelligence and operations, counter-terrorism, and asymmetric warfare and conflict.