As relations thaw, some Iranian prisoners in U.S. hope for early release

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 12, 2016 7:35 PM

By Joel Schectman and Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vahid Hosseini struggled to make it in the United States after he left Iran 25 years ago. A trained engineer, he hauled trash, delivered pizza and worked in landscaping.

Then, in 2008, Hosseini found a more lucrative activity: buying industrial equipment from dozens of American companies and shipping it to Dubai, from where it was forwarded to Iran.

Hosseini told Reuters he knew he was violating U.S. economic sanctions against his home country but thought of it as a minor infraction.

"You think that is OK," Hosseini, 64, said at his Virginia home where he is serving the remainder of a 30-month prison sentence, after being transferred from a halfway house in December. "I was thinking that I am five miles over the speed limit."

Hosseini is one of 12 Iranians in the United States who Reuters identified as imprisoned or facing charges for attempting to sell technology to Iran that could have bolstered its military and nuclear programs, violating broad economic sanctions.

In reviewing the little-known cases, Reuters examined thousands of pages of court records, and interviewed family members and attorneys, uncovering new details about the men, who range from a Houston businessman to a shipyard worker in Brooklyn to a pioneering space entrepreneur.

In the wake of last year's landmark deal to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for an easing of crippling sanctions, some of the men harbor hopes of an early release, their lawyers said.

In public statements, Iranian officials have repeatedly floated the idea of a prisoner exchange involving four American citizens known to be held in Iran. The four, accused of spying and other charges, include Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, and three other Iranian-Americans.

Iranian officials have met recently with some of the prisoners held in the United States to see if they would be willing to return to Iran if a swap was agreed, said a person familiar with the cases who asked not to be identified.

Hosseini said a representative of the Iranian government had tried unsuccessfully to meet him in prison in August, adding that the official met that month with another of the Iranian prisoners, Ali Saboonchi. Reuters was unable to reach Saboonchi and could not confirm that meeting.

Hosseini said the official, whose surname he said was Jahansoozan, told him by phone after the Saboonchi meeting that a swap might be possible. Fariborz Jahansoozan, an official at the Iranian interests section in Washington -- Iran's de facto embassy -- declined to comment on the cases or on whether he had met with prisoners.

"We're just doing the consular work here in Washington and we are not in any way informed of what's going on in Iran with respect to this issue," Jahansoozan said.

    The Iranian interests section and the nation's U.N. mission declined further comment.

The U.S. government would not comment on the possibility of a swap. A State Department official said Iran has repeatedly raised concerns about its citizens in U.S. custody.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in an interview with CBS in September that he is open to some kind of prisoner swap with Americans held in Iran.

"I don't particularly like the word exchange, but from a humanitarian perspective, if we can take a step, we must do it," he said. "The American side must take its own steps." 

Prosecutors say the men, 11 of whom have U.S. citizenship, helped Iran's nuclear and military programs. Reuters spoke to lawyers for 10 of the men. One of the men's lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawyers say their clients pose no threat to national security and in most cases were motivated by financial gain rather than ideological support or close political ties to Iran.

A thirteenth Iranian, Nima Golestaneh, is in U.S. jail awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in December to taking part in a cyber-hacking attack on a U.S. defense contractor.

AMERICAN DREAMS SOURED

The dozen men are among more than 100 people charged or convicted with Iran sanctions violations since 2008 for attempting to supply everything from schematics for F-35 fighter jet components to common electronics, like those used in mobile phones. Most of those arrested have already served their sentences and been released.

The current prisoners have varied backgrounds, but most are immigrants educated in science and engineering. Eight have been convicted, three are imprisoned awaiting trial, and one has been released on bail.

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to confirm the number of sanctions-related cases. He said its sanctions enforcement has helped block Iran's procurement network.

Hosseini said he realized he was breaking the law but that he was shipping "simple" instruments and that he refused to fill orders that could have been used for military or nuclear systems. The U.S. government argued the parts he exported had "dual-use" applications that could have helped Iran's nuclear program.

He pleaded guilty in 2014 and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. In September, he was moved from a minimum-security prison to a halfway house and then in December to home detention, which will end in March.

"Me, and the other people like me, they are victims (of) the fighting between two governments," Hosseini said last Saturday.

SECURITY THREATS?

Bahram Mechanic, a Houston businessman with multiple electronics patents, is in jail in Texas awaiting trial on charges he exported at least $24 million worth of electronics to Iran. Mechanic, a dual citizen who has lived in America for more than 30 years, denies the charges.

Attorneys for Mechanic said these components were widely available at U.S. retail stores.

Prosecutors said some of the parts could have been used in missile targeting. But they said their sale even for civilian use broke the law under the sweeping trade embargo with Iran.

"It's a national security case either way," said Mark McIntyre, a federal prosecutor, at a June hearing, according to a court transcript. "Whether he's selling blue jeans or oil field equipment ... the point is to starve the Iranian economy and make them come to the table."

Another jailed Iranian, Arash Ghahreman, won a visa lottery for the United States in 2006. He had studied maritime engineering in Iran and worked for Iranian shipping companies.

After moving to the United States, he became a citizen, settled in Staten Island and worked for a Brooklyn shipyard, according to his testimony.

Prosecutors say he planned to export electronics to a Dubai company run by a friend, knowing they would be shipped to Iran. Ghahreman, now serving a six-and-a-half year sentence under appeal, pleaded not guilty and said he didn't know the goods were destined for Iran.

"He was pursuing the American dream and, but for his agreeing to help his friend who he believed owned a Dubai-based company, he wouldn't be in this situation," said his lawyer, Ellis Johnston.

After moving to the United States in 1979, Nader Modanlo founded a satellite communications company that at one point was valued at $500 million, according to court records.

But the company fell into bankruptcy in 2001, and his partner reported him to the FBI for alleged export violations, according to Modanlo's lawyer Kelly Kramer and court records.

In 2013, a jury found Modanlo guilty of export violations and money laundering for brokering a deal with Russian officials to launch Iran's first earth-observation satellite. In exchange, authorities say, Modanlo was paid $10 million.

Kramer has filed an appeal for Modanlo, who pleaded not guilty and is now serving an eight-year sentence.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Scott Malone in Burlington, Vermont, and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Stuart Grudgings)