By dropping charges against major arms targets, the administration infuriated Justice Department officials — and undermined its own counterproliferation task forces.
By Josh Meyer /
When President Barack Obama announced the “one-time gesture” of releasing Iranian-born prisoners who “were not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses” last year, his administration presented the move as a modest trade-off for the greater good of the Iran nuclear agreement and Tehran’s pledge to free five Americans.
“Iran had a significantly higher number of individuals, of course, at the beginning of this negotiation that they would have liked to have seen released,” one senior Obama administration official told reporters in a background briefing arranged by the White House, adding that “we were able to winnow that down to these seven individuals, six of whom are Iranian-Americans.”
But Obama, the senior official and other administration representatives weren’t telling the whole story on Jan. 17, 2016, in their highly choreographed rollout of the prisoner swap and simultaneous implementation of the six-party nuclear deal, according to a POLITICO investigation.
In his Sunday morning address to the American people, Obama portrayed the seven men he freed as “civilians.” The senior official described them as businessmen convicted of or awaiting trial for mere “sanctions-related offenses, violations of the trade embargo.”
In reality, some of them were accused by Obama’s own Justice Department of posing threats to national security. Three allegedly were part of an illegal procurement network supplying Iran with U.S.-made microelectronics with applications in surface-to-air and cruise missiles like the kind Tehran test-fired recently, prompting a still-escalating exchange of threats with the Trump administration. Another was serving an eight-year sentence for conspiring to supply Iran with satellite technology and hardware. As part of the deal, U.S. officials even dropped their demand for $10 million that a jury said the aerospace engineer illegally received from Tehran.
And in a series of unpublicized court filings, the Justice Department dropped charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other men, all of them fugitives. The administration didn’t disclose their names or what they were accused of doing, noting only in an unattributed, 152-word statement about the swap that the U.S. “also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.”
Three of the fugitives allegedly sought to lease Boeing aircraft for an Iranian airline that authorities say had supported Hezbollah, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization. A fourth, Behrouz Dolatzadeh, was charged with conspiring to buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles and illegally import them into Iran.
A fifth, Amin Ravan, was charged with smuggling U.S. military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran. U.S. authorities also believe he was part of a procurement network providing Iran with high-tech components for an especially deadly type of IED used by Shiite militias to kill hundreds of American troops in Iraq.
The biggest fish, though, was Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili, who had been charged with being part of a conspiracy that from 2005 to 2012 procured thousands of parts with nuclear applications for Iran via China. That included hundreds of U.S.-made sensors for the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran whose progress had prompted the nuclear deal talks in the first place.
When federal prosecutors and agents learned the true extent of the releases, many were shocked and angry. Some had spent years, if not decades, working to penetrate the global proliferation networks that allowed Iranian arms traders both to obtain crucial materials for Tehran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs and, in some cases, to provide dangerous materials to other countries.
“They didn’t just dismiss a bunch of innocent business guys,” said one former federal law enforcement supervisor centrally involved in the hunt for Iranian arms traffickers and nuclear smugglers. “And then they didn’t give a full story of it.”
In its determination to win support for the nuclear deal and prisoner swap from Tehran — and from Congress and the American people — the Obama administration did a lot more than just downplay the threats posed by the men it let off the hook, according to POLITICO’s findings.
Through action in some cases and inaction in others, the White House derailed its own much-touted National Counterproliferation Initiative at a time when it was making unprecedented headway in thwarting Iran’s proliferation networks. In addition, the POLITICO investigation found that Justice and State Department officials denied or delayed requests from prosecutors and agents to lure some key Iranian fugitives to friendly countries so they could be arrested. Similarly, Justice and State, at times in consultation with the White House, slowed down efforts to extradite some suspects already in custody overseas, according to current and former officials and others involved in the counterproliferation effort.
And as far back as the fall of 2014, Obama administration officials began slow-walking some significant investigations and prosecutions of Iranian procurement networks operating in the U.S. These previously undisclosed findings are based on interviews with key participants at all levels of government and an extensive review of court records and other documents.
“Clearly, there was an embargo on any Iranian cases,” according to the former federal supervisor.
“Of course it pissed people off, but it’s more significant that these guys were freed, and that people were killed because of the actions of one of them,” the supervisor added, in reference to Ravan and the IED network.
The supervisor noted that in agreeing to lift crippling sanctions against Tehran, the Obama administration had insisted on retaining the right to go after Iran for its efforts to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads and cruise missiles that could penetrate U.S. defenses, and to illegally procure components for its nuclear, military and weapons systems.
“Then why would you be dismissing the people that you know about who are involved in that?” the former official asked.
A SHREWD CALCULATION
The saga of how the Obama administration threw a monkey wrench into its own Justice Department-led counterproliferation effort continues to play out almost entirely out of public view, largely because of the highly secretive nature of the cases and the negotiations that affected them.
That may be about to change, as the Trump administration and both chambers of Congress have pledged to crack down on Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a government-wide review of U.S. policy toward Iran in the face of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time.”
On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared that even if Iran is meeting the terms of its deal with the Obama administration and other world powers, “they are not living up to the spirit of it, I can tell you that. And we’re analyzing it very, very carefully, and we’ll have something to say about that in the not-too-distant future.”
At left, President Barack Obama delivers a statement Jan. 17, 2016, on the relations between the U.S. and Iran. At right, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet July 7, 2015, in Vienna, Austria, during the nuclear talks between the E3+3 and Iran. | AP and Getty Photos
Such reviews are likely to train a spotlight on an aspect of the nuclear deal and prisoner swap that has infuriated the federal law enforcement community most — the hidden damage it has caused to investigations and prosecutions into a wide array of Iranian smuggling networks with U.S. connections.
Valerie Lincy, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said Obama administration officials made a shrewd political calculation in focusing public attention on just those seven men it was freeing in the United States, and portraying them as mere sanctions violators.
That way, she said, “They just didn’t think it was going to make too many waves. And I think they were right.”
But Lincy, who closely tracks the U.S. counterproliferation effort against Iran, said that by letting so many men off the hook, and for such a wide range of offenses, Washington has effectively given its blessing to Iran’s continuing defiance of international laws.
Former Obama administration officials deny that, saying the men could still be prosecuted if they continue their illegal activity. But with their cases dropped, international arrest warrants dismissed and investigative assets redirected, the men — especially the 14 fugitives — can now continue activities the U.S. considers to be serious threats to its national security, Lincy said.
“This is a scandal,” she said. “The cases bear all the hallmarks of exactly the kinds of national security threats we’re still going after. It’s stunning and hard to understand why we would do this.”
Even some initial supporters of negotiating with Iran said the disclosures are troubling.
“There was always a broader conceptual problem with the administration not wanting to upset the balance of the deal or the perceived rapprochement with the Iranian regime,” said former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Juan Zarate, who later turned against the accord. “The deal was sacrosanct, and the Iranians knew it from the start and took full advantage when we had — and continue to maintain — enormous leverage.”
Most, if not all, of the Justice Department lawyers and prosecutors involved in the Counterproliferation Initiative were kept in the dark about how their cases were being used as bargaining chips, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials.
So were the federal agents from the FBI and departments of Homeland Security and Commerce who for years had been operating internationally, often undercover, on the front lines of the hunt for Iranian arms and weapons smugglers.
It wasn’t just that prosecutors and agents with years of detailed knowledge about the cases were left out of the consultations about the significance of the 21 men let go in the swap. The lack of input also meant that negotiators were making decisions without fully understanding how the releases would impact the broader and interconnected matrix of U.S. investigations.
At the time, those investigations were providing U.S. officials with a roadmap of how, exactly, Tehran was clandestinely building its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and maintaining its military with the unwitting assistance of so many U.S. weapons parts and technology companies. The cases were also providing key operational details of how the Iranian procurement networks operate, and who in Tehran was calling the shots.
“So when they downplayed it, it really infuriated people,” said Kenneth MacDonald, a former senior Homeland Security official who helped establish the multi-agency coordination center at the heart of the National Counterproliferation Initiative.
“They’d spent months or years on these cases and the decisions were made with no review of what the implications were,” said MacDonald, who retired in 2013 but keeps in contact with agents as co-principal investigator at the DHS-affiliated Institute for Security Policy at Northeastern University. “There was absolutely no consultation.”
A SYSTEM IN LIMBO
The Obama administration’s decision to grant clemency to seven men in the U.S. and drop criminal charges and arrest warrants against 14 others overseas undermined strategic enforcement efforts against a broad array of Iranian procurement networks operating in the U.S. that have provided Tehran with a steady stream of critically important parts and technologies for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and to maintain and expand its military and weapons systems.
Here are some of the key players let go in the prisoner swap. For a complete list of the key players, click here.
The Nuclear Network
Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili, a Tehran-based import-export businessman, was charged under seal in Boston in 2013 with conspiring with Chinese associate Sihai Cheng (above) and two Iranian companies to procure thousands of parts with nuclear applications for Iran in a conspiracy dating back to 2005. Beginning in February 2009, the two allegedly conspired with others to illegally obtain hundreds of specially manufactured pressure transducers — believed critical to running Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program — from an Andover, Massachusetts, company that was not suspected of wrongdoing. Although Jamili was the suspected mastermind, Cheng pleaded guilty a month before the swap and is serving a nine-year prison sentence.
The Missile Parts Pipeline
Bahram Mechanic (above) was charged in Houston in April 2015, along with alleged U.S.-based associates Khosrow Afghahi and Tooraj Faridi and Matin Sadeghi of Turkey, with supplying Iran with U.S.-origin microelectronics and other commodities “frequently used in a wide range of military systems, including surface-air and cruise missiles.” The men, and four U.S. and Iranian companies, allegedly sent $24 million worth of commodities to Iran between 2010 and 2015 alone, in a conspiracy one Justice Department official described as “a clear threat to U.S. national security.” Mechanic has led a broader Houston-based Iranian procurement network since at least 1985, authorities say.
The Improvised Explosives Network
Amin Ravan, known by U.S. officials as a longtime globe-trotting procurement agent for Tehran, was charged in Washington, D.C., in 2011 along with his Tehran firm and others with smuggling U.S.-made military antennae to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran. Authorities also say he is an unindicted co-conspirator in a sprawling procurement network that sent to Tehran thousands of U.S.-made radio frequency modules, some of which ended up in a particularly deadly form of IED responsible for killing American troops in Iraq. Ravan was arrested in Malaysia in 2012, but released before U.S. authorities could have him extradited.
The Military and Weapons Pipeline
Arash Ghahreman (above), a naturalized U.S. citizen from Staten Island, N.Y., was convicted in April 2015 and is serving 78 months for his role in a scheme to illegally procure marine navigation and military electronic equipment for Iran. Also charged in the San Diego case was Iranian national Koorush Taherkhani and his Dubai firm, described as a front established to obtain American goods and technologies for Iran. Ghahreman promised undercover agents posing as suppliers that his network needed “trusted and reliable” partners, prosecutors said. A top Justice Department official said the network had “the potential to harm U.S. national security objectives.”
The Military Logistics Network
Hamid Arabnejad (above), Gholamreza Mahmoudi and Ali Moattar, Iranian citizens and Mahan Air executives, were indicted in 2014 in connection with a conspiracy to illegally obtain six Boeing airplanes for the private Iranian airline. U.S. authorities also sanctioned Mahan Air and the men for a variety of alleged crimes, including using the airline to provide financial and logistical support to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its paramilitary Quds Force, which the U.S. designated as a supporter of terrorism in 2007. Arabnejad was individually designated for allegedly overseeing Mahan Air’s sanctions evasion efforts and provision of support and services to Quds Force.
In a series of interviews, senior officials from the Obama White House and Justice and State Departments said the prisoner swap was a bargain for the U.S., given the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and three others. Iran also promised cooperation on the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who had disappeared in Iran nearly a decade earlier and was believed to be either imprisoned or dead.
Those senior officials acknowledged that all but a handful of people were kept in the dark, but said top representatives of the Justice Department and FBI helped vet the 21 Iranian proliferators and that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch herself participated in blocking some other individuals demanded by Tehran from inclusion in potential prisoner trades.
“The condition was that they not be engaged in anything remotely attached to violence or proliferation activities,” said one senior Obama administration official familiar with the swap negotiations. “And none of them were in any stage where they were providing assistance to the [Tehran] government.”
That may be true for the seven men granted clemency in the United States, but it certainly wasn’t the case for the 14 fugitives.
“These were people under active investigation, who we wanted very badly because they were operating at such a high level that they could help us begin to find out what was happening inside the black box of how Iran’s procurement networks really operate,” said Aaron Arnold, a former intelligence analyst at CPC2, the FBI’s special Counterproliferation Center unit dedicated to thwarting Iranian nuclear and weapons smuggling. “Without that kind of strategic insight, it leaves our analysts, but more importantly, our policy-makers just guessing at what Iran is up to and how to stop it.”
Fifteen months later, the fallout from the nuclear deal and prisoner swap — and questions about the events leading up to them — continue to reverberate through the Justice Department and the specialized units at the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Commerce Department created to neutralize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear and military ambitions.
The National Counterproliferation Initiative, created with much fanfare a decade ago, has suffered greatly, many participants said, even as they acknowledged that metrics are hard to come by. Much of the work is done in secret, and in long-range efforts that can’t be publicly disclosed, much less measured in annual arrest or conviction statistics.
But key enforcement efforts are in limbo as the result of stalled or stymied investigations and prosecutions, and the trail of some high-value targets has gone cold, numerous participants said.
At least six times in the run-up to the nuclear deal, federal investigators scrambled to get Justice and State Department approval to lure top Iranian targets into traveling internationally in order to arrest them, according to one top Obama administration Justice Department official and other participants. But the requests weren’t approved and the targets vanished, depriving the U.S. of some of its best opportunities to gain insight into the workings of Tehran’s nuclear, missile and military programs, the sources said.
“We would say, ‘We have this opportunity and if we don’t do it now, we’ll never have the opportunity ever again,” the recently departed Justice Department official recalls. But, he added, “There were periods of time where State Department cooperation was necessary but not forthcoming.”
Obama Secretary of State John Kerry declined to comment through a former senior State Department official, who said certain requests might have been delayed temporarily because they came at particularly sensitive times in the negotiations, but only with the concurrence of the White House and Justice Department.
But even now, many experienced agents and prosecutors say they are reluctant to pursue counterproliferation cases for fear that they won’t go anywhere. They say they have also received no helpful guidance on what they can — and cannot — investigate going forward given the complicated parameters of the Iran deal and lifting of nuclear sanctions. Some said they are biding their time to see how hard-liners in the new administration, including Trump himself, deal with Iran.