It turns out that so-called “prisoner swap” with Iran didn’t involve much of a swap. When given the chance, none of the Iranians freed from U.S. custody chose to return to Iran, according to U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations.
As the United States and Iran secretly negotiated the terms of a deal that culminated with a “prisoner swap” this weekend, both parties agreed they would fly their prisoners to Geneva, Switzerland, for the exchange – a neutral country that for years has worked as a diplomatic mediator between the two adversaries.
After an hours-long and nerve-wracking delay, a Swiss plane took off Sunday from a military base in Tehran just before 7 a.m. ET carrying three long-held American prisoners: journalist Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.
That same day, a plane took off from somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, carrying the seven Iranian-Americans freed from U.S. custody who wanted to return to Iran (or so everyone believed). But not one of them boarded the plane, according to the U.S. officials familiar with the process. The plane left anyway because it was designated to bring the freed Americans on to their second destination in Landstuhl, Germany.
So who were these Iranian men, and why didn’t they leave the U.S. when given the chance?
Six of the seven have American/Iran dual citizenship and all of them had been convicted or charged with crimes related to selling sensitive equipment to Iran in violation of strict trade embargoes.
Three of them – 69-year-old Bahram Mechanic, 72-year-old Khosrow Afghahi and Tooraj Faridi – were caught up in an alleged conspiracy in Texas to illegally export equipment and supplies to Iran. According to the Department of Justice, the items they sent are frequently used in a wide range of military systems, including surface-air and cruise missiles. Many of them have families living in the United States.
Mechanic was allegedly the head of the conspiracy in the U.S., and starting in July 2010 his network allegedly sent at least $24 million worth of commodities to Iran. Until Sunday, both Mechanic and Afghahi were in U.S. jail awaiting trial. Faridi had already been released on $75,000 bond and was awaiting trial.
Afghahi’s attorney, David Gerger, said the pardon was the right decision and that his client never posed any threat.
"Right now, Mr. Afghahi is spending some precious time with his family in the United States...and probably getting the first good night sleep and hot cup of coffee he’s had in nine months,” Gerger said in a statement to ABC News on Tuesday. “As far as next steps, the family will be making all those decisions as soon as possible."
An attorney for Mechanic, Joel Androphy, said his client is also spending time with family in Texas, namely his wife. Androphy accused the federal government of bringing an unjust case against Mechanic, saying authorities had illegally obtained evidence.
Meanwhile, an attorney representing Faridi, Kent Schaffer, said his client has no plans to ever leave the United States.
“Mr. Faridi is here in Houston,” Schaffer told ABC News. “He has not been in Iran in years, has no plans to go there, and will remain here at his home. He is an American and will remain in America."
ABC News was unable to confirm the plans or locations of other Iranians freed in the so-called “prisoner swap.”
Those men are:
- Nima Golestaneh, who pleaded guilty just last month to his role in the October 2012 hacking of a Vermont-based engineering consulting and software company. He was scheduled to be sentenced next month.
- Nader Modanlo, 55, who was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in U.S. prison for conspiring to illegally provide satellite related services to Iran. He lived in Potomac, Maryland, and was a naturalized U.S. citizen.
- Arash Ghahreman, 46, who was sentenced late last year to six-and-a-half years in a U.S. prison after being convicted of using a front company to buy marine navigation equipment and military electronic equipment that was intended for Iran. He was caught up in a U.S. undercover sting operation.
- Ali Saboonchi, a 35-year-old U.S. citizen living in Maryland, who was sentenced last year to two years in prison for illegally shipping goods overseas intended for Iran.
In addition to the clemency for the seven individuals, the U.S. government agreed to abandon efforts to prosecute 14 Iranians.
A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry identified those 14 as Saeed Jamili, Jalal Salami, Matin Sadeqi, Alireza Moazzemi Goudarzi, Mohammad Abbas Mohammadi, Kourosh Taherkhani, Sajjad Farhadi, Seyed Ahmad Abtahi, Gholamreza Mahmoudi, Hamid Arabnejad, Ali Moattar, Mohammad Ali She'rbaf, Amin Ravan and Behrouz Dolatzadeh.
Of the five Americans freed from Iranian detention, one chose not to leave Iran. Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, a man not previously known to U.S. media and who President Obama described as “unjustly detained,” decided not to board that plane for Geneva. It’s unclear why.
Matthew Trevithick, an American detained only recently in Iran, was released earlier and flew home on a commercial flight.