What we know about the Iranian prisoners the US released

The World
Bahram Mechanic (L) smiles as he leaves the Federal Detention Center Houston in Houston, Texas January 17, 2016.

Bahram Mechanic, left, smiles as he leaves a federal prison in Houston, Texas, January 17, 2016.

Daniel Kramer/Reuters

President Barack Obama granted clemency to seven Iranian Americans this past weekend. It was part of the prisoner swap that the US and Iran had reached that freed five Americans from Iranian custody.

Here’s what we know about the Iranian prisoners released in the US:

The cases of three of the prisoners were connected. Khosrow Afghahi and Bahram Mechanic co-own Faratel Corporation in Iran and Houston-based Smart Power Systems. US prosecutors say Afghahi helped Mechanic provide US technology to Iran. Tooraj Faridi was also granted a pardon. Faridi, 46, is vice president of Houston-based Smart Power Systems.

Arash Ghahreman, another one of the prisoners, was convicted in 2014 for export violations. He was sentenced to more than six years in prison last year for violating the trade embargo. He was involved in a scheme to purchase marine navigation and military electronic equipment to send to Iran.

Nader Modanlo, who helped Iran launch its first satellite into orbit, was released from a Virginia prison on Sunday. He had been sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013. According to court documents, Modanlo was a mechanical engineer who received science and engineering degrees from George Washington University. He managed space and science programs for private companies, the Department of Defense and NASA.

The two other prisoners who were released are Niam Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi. Golestaneh is an Iranian national and he pleaded guilty to hacking the computer system of a Vermont-based aerodynamics company, Arrow Tech. Golestaneh was the only Iranian released this past weekend who doesn’t have dual citizenship.

Finally, Ali Saboonchi, 35, was convicted in 2014 of exporting industrial products to Iran through companies in China and the United Arab Emirates.

While all seven were released an offered trips home, none of them, so far at least, took up the US offer to fly them to Switzerland, where they could then fly on to Iran.

Kaveh Miremadi, a sanctions lawyer with Price Benowitz in Washington, DC, has dealt with cases similar to these.

The thing that I think most people don’t realize, he says, “is even if you have a situation where something that’s not very sensitive gets transferred to Iran, you can be held responsible for that transaction.”

Miremadi gives the example of one of his clients who had shipped a used fork lift to Iran.

“That person faced similar prison time as these folks that were released. We’re looking at 60 months, 70 months imprisonment,” he says.

He adds that some of the people convicted may not have been completely aware that they were committing such a serious offense.

“Some of these cases, they are providing services and technology and goods to private actors in Iran, so to them it’s business. It’s not so much supporting the Iranian regime [...] they just see a business opportunity to help a private company acquire a good or service and they’re the middle man that can do it and earn a hefty fee in the process.”

That wasn’t true in Nader Modanlo’s case. Miremadi says in the court filings, the government makes a pretty strong case that he was a sophisticated individual and that “his actions demonstrate a willfulness element — that he knew these rules existed and he tried to figure out a way to circumvent this rule.”

Miremadi points out that even though the European sanctions on Iran have been lifted, except for very few cases, the bulk of US sanctions on Iran remain in place.

“If Mr. Modanlo did the same thing today, he would be prosecuted and face the same kind of jail sentence that he was given,” he says.

This is key to keep in mind, he adds, for anyone trying to do business with Iran.