WASHINGTON − Biden administration officials this week downplayed the background of five Iranian men freed in the U.S. as part of a prisoner swap with Tehran, saying they were charged with or convicted of committing only “non-violent crimes.”
What they didn’t say? At least some of the men were accused of working to help Iran illegally obtain American military and — potentially — even nuclear weapons parts and technology in violation of U.S. and international sanctions.
U.S. law enforcement officials spent months, and sometimes years, trying to put each of the five men behind bars, often in collaborations with their international counterparts, according to court documents and Justice Department records.
Now, some former counter-proliferation authorities are wondering why the men are being set free after an enormous legal effort to charge, track down, arrest, extradite and sentence them.
“These are major violators based on what I’ve read in the complaints or the indictments,” said Kenneth MacDonald, a former senior Department of Homeland Security official specializing in investigating illicit networks. “It appears that they were sourcing significant technology that helps to advance Iran’s weapons systems.”
Former federal prosecutor Stephanie Siegmann also oversaw many similar counterproliferation cases as the National Security Chief in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts until last year.
“These procurement networks around the world definitely pose a national security threat, or we wouldn’t be putting all these resources into prosecuting them,” Siegmann told USA TODAY.
MacDonald and Siegmann know from experience how political and diplomatic negotiations at the White House level can undermine efforts to bring to justice people who spread dangerous international weapons technology.
In January 2016, they both learned that the Obama administration was freeing a few dozen Iranian men accused or convicted of being involved in similar efforts related to weapons under another prisoner swap in which Iran agreed to free five Americans being detained there.
Dig deeper: Americans freed from Iran survived the infamous Evin prison. Here are their stories.
One of the men freed, Sihai Cheng, had pleaded guilty months earlier, and acknowledged conspiring with an Iranian operative to provide more than 1,000 high-tech components known as pressure transducers to Iran, which authorities said advanced its nuclear weapons capabilities.
MacDonald and Siegmann said many of the same Biden national security officials negotiating the current deal also worked on the 2016 prisoner swap with Iran, which was done in tandem with the landmark deal to get Iran to curb its clandestine nuclear weapons program. President Donald Trump ultimately scrapped that deal.
In the current case, Siegmann noted, the Biden administration also is agreeing to give Iran access to $6 billion in sanctioned oil revenues that was being held in South Korea for humanitarian purposes. “I just don’t know if the trades are fair,” she said. “We’re giving you (Iran) this person who has been convicted of these laws and export control violations for procuring parts for the Iranians in violation of U.S. export laws. And you held people who never committed a crime.”
MacDonald led a White House multi-agency task force to go after weapons technology and hardware traffickers, who he said are part of sophisticated networks that buy so-called dual-use technology from U.S. and foreign companies.
“There’s nothing to prevent these guys from going right back to doing business again,” MacDonald said. “They have the same connections, they have the same networks and the same paymasters who they were selling the goods to. And they’ll be smarter this time to stay away from the United States.”
In a briefing with reporters, two senior Biden administration officials acknowledged having to make difficult decisions and perhaps even uncomfortable tradeoffs to free the five Americans held in Iran’s notoriously dangerous Evin prison.
“These are very difficult cases … they are excruciating,” said one Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the prisoner swap. “I think in this case, the arrangement that we finally worked out is very much in our interest. So, we are going to make these families whole.”
Here’s a look at the five men released by the Biden administration as part of the prisoner swap:
More: Iran releases five Americans in prisoner swap deal negotiated by Joe Biden
Illegally obtaining sensitive military parts and technology for Iran
Mehrdad Ansari was sentenced to more than five years in prison in September 2021 for his role in a scheme to obtain sensitive parts and technology for Iran in violation of international sanctions and trade embargoes.
According to court documents, Ansari − a resident of the United Arab Emirates and Germany − worked with a network of co-conspirators to obtain parts that had dual-use military and civilian capability — and could be used in nuclear weapons, missile systems, secure tactical radio communications, electronic warfare, military electronic countermeasures (radio jamming) and radar warning and surveillance systems.
“Ansari and his co-conspirators attempted to profit from a far-reaching, extensive scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said at the time. “They repeatedly lied to numerous U.S. suppliers and illegally obtained very sensitive dual-use items. As demonstrated by this prosecution, DOJ pursues those who threaten U.S. national security, even years after their original crimes.”
Prosecutors said that from 2007 to 2011, some of Ansari’s alleged co-conspirators obtained or tried to obtain from companies worldwide over 105,000 parts valued at approximately $2.6 million involving more than 1,250 transactions, including 599 transactions with 63 different U.S. companies. “Without notifying the U.S. companies these parts were being shipped to Iran or getting the required U.S. government license to ship these parts to Iran,” the DOJ said in a report.
Ansari’s main role, DOJ said, “was to get one particular set of parts from a Central Texas company that was key for the Iranian government’s testing of all other parts.”
Ansari was arrested in 2019 after he left his home in Dubai and traveled to the Republic of Georgia, where he was arrested on an international warrant and extradited back to the U.S to face charges, according to court documents.
Charges of sending Iran equipment that can be used for nuclear enrichment and ‘weaponization’
Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani was charged with unlawfully exporting laboratory equipment from the United States to Iran, through Canada and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Chromatography and spectrometry analytical instruments purchased by Kafrani are controlled for nuclear nonproliferation reasons, MacDonald said.
Kafrani, who lived in Montreal, pleaded not guilty and was slated for trial in Washington, D.C. in March 2024 before the deal was announced this week. If found guilty of the sanctions violations and money laundering, he faced up to 20 years in prison.
When he was indictment in July 2021, the Justice Department said mass spectrometers are controlled under laws prohibiting the export of certain items “for reasons of Anti-Terrorism and Nuclear Nonproliferation.” Mass spectrometers, it said, can be used to monitor the performance of uranium enrichment processes and determine the exact level of enrichment, “which is an essential part of enriching uranium for nuclear power and weaponization efforts.”
Michigan scholar accused of stealing secret aerospace documents
Amin Hasanzadeh, a Michigan engineer, is an Iranian citizen and U.S. permanent resident accused of funneling secret data to his brother in Iran.
Hasanzadeh, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, had his Ann Arbor home secretly searched by the FBI.
He was living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at the time of his arrest in 2019. He has his PhD in electrical engineering from Shari University of Technology and served in the Iranian military, according to court documents.
Hasanzadeh pleaded not guilty, and his case was still pending this summer. He wrote to U.S. District Judge Denise Hood alleging unfair delays in what he called a “totally fabricated and manipulated case.”
A company executive told the FBI that if the data fell into the wrong hands it would have “catastrophic” consequences, according to the criminal complaint.
Banking expert convicted for facilitating financing for Iran
Kambiz Attar Kashani, a dual U.S. and Iranian citizen, resided in the UAE. He was convicted in February for exporting proprietary software tied to the SWIFT international banking system. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
“Kashani conspired to illegally export U.S. goods and technology for the benefit of the Central Bank of Iran, a designated entity that materially supports known terrorist organizations,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, chief of the DOJ’s National Security Division at the time.
At Kashani’s sentencing in February, Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Arfa called the banking violations “the life blood of a hostile foreign state’s ability to engage in international terrorism activities,” according to a court transcript.
And Breon Peace, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York said at his sentencing that Kashani “will now head to prison for strengthening the economy of one of the world’s most infamous state sponsors of terrorism to line his own pockets, while circumventing U.S. laws in place to protect our national security interests.”
Prominent political scientist accused of illegal lobbying
Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. since 1984, became a prolific letter-writer, media spokesman and consultant for Iran. But he failed to register as a foreign agent and DOJ says he surreptitiously derived a “significant portion” of his income from the Iranian government.
Afrasiabi drew attention in 2020 for a CGTN American television appearance where he provided commentary on the U.S. airstrike to kill Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. He said President Donald Trump’s “hands are stained with the blood of ten martyrs, five from Iran, five from Iraq” and called Soleimani a national hero.
He asked a court to consider his efforts with well-known scholar Noam Chomsky to return three American hikers in 2008-2009. Afrasiabi filed a letter with the court he wrote to former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010. Chomsky said via email that Afrasiabi was a “long-time colleague” and worked to return the trio of Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.
Afrasiabi pleaded not guilty and his case was still pending as of August 2023 before this week’s deal. John Demers, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists and the American public as a neutral expert on Iran for more than a decade and intended to “hold him responsible” for failing to register as a foreign agent.
“However, all the while, Afrasiabi was actually a secret employee of the Government of Iran and the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations (IMUN) who was being paid to spread their propaganda. In doing so, he intentionally avoided registering with the Department of Justice as the Foreign Agents Registration Act required. He likewise evaded his obligation to disclose who was sponsoring his views.”
Afrasiabi spoke with WCVB-TV and said he was “thrilled” to end what he called “a terrible nightmare” this week.
A global cat-and-mouse game dating back decades
By the time of the 2016 nuclear deal and first prisoner swap, the U.S. government already had spent 35 years pursuing Iran’s ever more sophisticated web of smugglers, traffickers, transport operatives and procurement agents needed to keep its military and weapons programs in operation.
That’s because in 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter declared that Iran constituted an unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. security after Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostage 52 Americans.
Tehran began calling the United States “the Great Satan” and vowed its destruction, in part by using proxy forces like Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
Successive administrations put in place a raft of economic sanctions against Iran and Iranian entities. Those included restrictions on U.S. parts and technology that Tehran needed for military or other restricted applications, including its squadrons of F-class fighter jets that Washington sold it during friendlier times.
Tehran’s ambitious ballistic missile program also became a grave concern over the years, especially when it became apparent that Iran was using U.S. commodities to engineer inter-continental versions that could reach the United States, and to top them with nuclear, conventional or even chemical and biological weapons.
And as Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program ramped up, so did the U.S. effort to stop it.
Overseas, U.S. intelligence operatives shadowed Iranian procurement agents while the U.S. military tried to interdict illicit shipments headed for Tehran. The Treasury Department issued endless rounds of targeted sanctions, but each time it restricted access to global markets for suspect individuals and companies, Tehran would create new ones.
Successive administrations tried the diplomatic route to slow or stop Iranian proliferation too, including Tehran’s efforts to share weapons and research with other enemies of the United States, without success.
In response, federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors were deployed to shut down the Iranian procurement networks and dam the rivers of U.S. parts and technology illicitly flowing to Iran.
That proved virtually impossible, given the hundreds of trading, shipping and transport companies Iran employed, and the complex payment schemes and often unwitting procurement agents it used to get the products via other countries with lax export controls.
Moving to close a gaping hole in the US security net
In 2007, moving to close what Bush administration officials said was a gaping hole in the U.S. national security safety net, the Justice Department established special task forces around the country to prevent Iran and other unfriendly nations from illegally obtaining U.S.-made parts and technology for their militaries and fledgling nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.
The National Counterproliferation Initiative sought to crack down on the black-market networks that U.S. officials believe had flourished worldwide for decades and continued to clandestinely provide American hardware and software to numerous nations and possibly to terrorist organizations.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced a similar effort of its own called the Disruptive Technology Strike Force.
The effort by the Justice Department and Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security will bring together experts throughout government – including the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and 14 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in 12 metropolitan regions across the country – to target illicit actors, strengthen supply chains and protect critical technological assets from being acquired or used by nation-state adversaries.
Released Iranians serving time for same crimes Biden trying to stop
Siegmann, now in private practice, said the prisoner swap this week undermines the new task force’s efforts.
At its launch in February, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco described the strike force as a critical cog in the U.S. national security effort to keep America safe.
“Today, autocrats seek tactical advantage through the acquisition, use, and abuse of America’s most innovative technology. They use it to enhance their military capabilities, support mass surveillance programs that enable human rights abuses and all together undermine our values,” Monaco said. “Using real-time intelligence and 21st century data analytics, the Disruptive Technology Strike Force will bring together the Justice and Commerce Departments’ expertise to strike back against adversaries trying to siphon off our most advanced technology, and to attack tomorrow’s national security threats today.”
“Well, that’s the purpose of that task force,” Siegmann said. “I mean, there’s no other incentive for that initiative other than disrupting these types of procurement networks.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who are the released Iranians? Some could threaten national security