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Iran reveals names of 5 citizens sought in US prisoner deal

Washington and Tehran are on the verge of a deal that would see the exchange of five Americans for five Iranians, most of whom were accused or convicted of sanctions violations.
A general view shows the Iranian capital Tehran on January 7, 2023, with the Iranian flag fluttering in the wind. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Of the individuals Iran is seeking in an exchange with the United States, four were charged with sanctions violations and a fifth with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Iran, according to a list of names provided by the country’s mission to the United Nations. 

The individuals are Mehrdad Moein Ansari, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, Amin Hasanzadeh and Kaveh Afrasiabi, the Iranian mission told Al-Monitor. 

A mutual release of prisoners held by the longtime adversaries is expected once more than $6 billion in Iranian funds is transferred from South Korea, where they were frozen under US sanctions, to an account in Qatar. US officials say Iran could only use the unblocked funds for humanitarian purchases like food and medicine. 

The Biden administration informed Congress on Monday that it had issued a waiver for international banks to handle the funds without running afoul of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The Associated Press first reported on the notification to lawmakers.

As a first step in the deal, Iran last month moved four US citizens detained in Evin Prison to an undisclosed hotel where they are being held under Iranian guard. A fifth US detainee was already under house arrest. 

Sources familiar with the arrangement say the Americans could leave Iran as soon as next week. They include Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi and Emad Shargi, each of whom have been held in Iran on spying charges the United States says are bogus. The identities of the two other imprisoned Americans have not been made public at their families' request. 

On Monday, the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York provided Al-Monitor with a list of Iranians jailed or facing trial in the United States that Tehran is seeking as part of the exchange. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the list of names “due to the sensitivity of this ongoing process.”

They include dual US-Iranian citizen Kambiz Attar Kashani, who in February was sentenced to 30 months in prison for allegedly sending electronic equipment and technology to the Iranian government, including the Central Bank of Iran, using front companies in the United Arab Emirates. 

Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian resident of the United Arab Emirates and Germany, was sentenced in September 2021 to roughly five years in prison for his alleged role in a scheme to obtain sensitive dual-use items for Iran in violation of the Iranian trade embargo. According to court documents, the parts Ansari obtained or attempted to obtain could have been used for nuclear weapons, missile guidance and development, and other military purposes. 

Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian national residing in Montreal, was charged in July 2021 with illegally exporting laboratory equipment to Iran. 

Amin Hasanzadeh, an Iranian national and a US permanent resident living in Michigan, was indicted in December 2020. Federal prosecutors accused Hasanzadeh, an engineer, of stealing confidential information from his employer and sending it to his brother in Iran, who had ties to the military. 

Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a Boston-based political scientist and author, was charged in January 2021 with violating the law that requires individuals acting as foreign agents in the United States to register with the US government.

According to court documents, Afrasiabi was secretly paid by Iran’s mission to the United Nations since at least 2007, during which time prosecutors said he lobbied a US congressman and the State Department. 

Over the past two years, the list of names Iran sought as part of the prisoner swap evolved after some of the individuals held on sanctions violations served out their sentences. 

The pending release of the prisoners, which is seen as part of a broader effort to de-escalate tensions with Iran, was conducted through third parties including Oman, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Qatar. It comes as the anniversary of Iran’s women-led protest movement nears and the country’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, is due to visit New York for the annual United Nations meeting of world leaders. 

As part of its indirect talks with Iran, the Biden administration had also sought the release of Baquer Namazi, a US citizen held in Iran for more than six years in prison and under house arrest. Namazi, who was in need of urgent medical treatment, left Iran after his travel ban was lifted in October 2022.

His son Siamak Namazi was the only American not returned home as part of a 2016 swap described by former President Barack Obama as “a one-time gesture to Iran.” Under the prisoner exchange, which occurred the same day the landmark nuclear deal took effect, Obama granted clemency to seven Iranians accused or convicted of sanctions violations. After eight years, Namazi remains the longest-held US prisoner in Iran. 

Not included in the planned prisoner swap are US permanent residents Shahab Dalili and Jamshid Sharmahd, who — despite their cases' similarities to those of Tabhaz, Namazi and Shargi — are not considered “wrongfully detained” in Iran by the State Department.

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