The Iranian Nuclear Deal included many pieces, but one of the least reported items of the deal has been the prisoner swap. Iran agreed to release four Americans while we handed over seven prisoners and dropped charges and investigations against 14 others.

Professor Jacobson profiled these prisoners after the exchange occurred. But a Politico investigation has revealed the anger and frustration within former President Barack Obama’s administration over the release of these men:

“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.”

The Prisoners

America agreed to release these men to Iran: Nader Modanlo, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghani, Arash Ghahreman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboun.

Obama described them as civilians. But Obama’s DOJ had accused some of these men as “threats to national security.” From Politico:

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.

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.

Politico also found “unpublicized court filings” that showed the DOJ agreed to drop “charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other men, all of them fugitives.” Unfortunately, we do not know their names or the accusations they faced. In addition to dropped charges, the deal demanded that we “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.”

Another administration official said that conditions for all 21 prisoners included “not be engaged in anything remotely attached to violence of proliferation activities” plus that “none of them were in any stage where they were providing assistance to the [Tehran] government.”

Oh, but top people at the DOJ and FBI completely vetted these 21 men. Just how well did they vet? Not very well officials told Politico:

“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.”

Kept In The Dark

A former federal supervisor told Politico that the Obama placed “an embargo on any Iranian case.” Starting in 2014, the administration “began slow-walking some significant investigations and prosecutions of Iranian procurement networks operating in the U.S.” For example:

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.”

To no one’s surprise, when the prisoner swap occurred, the supervisor said that 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.” But Politico found it goes deeper than that, too:

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.

Politico interviews revealed that Obama’s administration kept almost all of the lawyers and prosecutors in the DOJ that worked on the Counterproliferation Initiative in the dark about how their cases were being used as bargaining chips. The Counterproliferation Initiative office in the State Department works with other government agencies, like the DOJ, to help “impede the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Oh, the administration also chose not to tell agents within the FBI and Homeland Security about this part of the deal. A lot of those agents had worked “internationally, often undercover, on the front lines of the hunt for Iranian arms and weapons smugglers.”

Still Feeling The Effects

Due to the prisoner swap, Politico found that agents and prosecutors have shown reluctance “to pursue counterproliferation cases for fear they won’t go anywhere.” No one has given them any “guidance on what they can – and cannot – investigate going forward given the complicated parameters of the Iran deal and lifting of nuclear sanctions.” Others have completely left the effort:

“This has erased literally years — many years — of hard work, and important cases that can be used to build toward other cases and even bigger players in Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs,” said former Justice Department counterproliferation prosecutor David Locke Hall, adding that the swap demolished the deterrent effect that the arrests and convictions may have had. “Even though these men’s crimes posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, the [Obama] administration has essentially told them their efforts have produced nothing more than political capital that can be traded away when politically expedient.”

David Albright with the Institute for Science and International Security, who also serves as an expert witness for the DOJ on Iran trafficking prosecutions, “witnessed many instances since late 2014 in which important investigations and prosecutions were hindered.” He told Politico:

“You can’t keep turning these down and expecting them to want to keep doing this,” said Albright, who added that efforts to lure suspects to countries where they can be arrested are essential in getting beyond the lower rungs of middlemen for Iran. He said he could not disclose specific details, but said, “The amount of rejections has risen to the level where people were worried that it would kill the counterproliferation effort.”

“They had wanted all of these things prosecuted, they were on a roll, they were freaking out the Iranians and then they were told, boom, stop,” Albright said of the Obama administration’s counterproliferation efforts. “And it’s hard to get them back again. We are shooting ourselves in the foot, destroying the infrastructure that we created to enforce the laws against the Iranians.”

**Updated! I named the wrong seven prisoners. Sorry for the confusion!