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Parkville man released from U.S. prison in deal to free Americans held in Iran with another to reportedly follow

, , and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Two Maryland men are reported to be among seven Iranians being released as part of a deal to return Americans

Jan. 17 update: Ali Saboonchi, who lived in Parkville, was released just before 7 a.m., according to Jim Wyda, head of the federal public defenders office in Maryland, which represented Saboonchi. Saboonchi is "thrilled by his release and the opportunity to be reunited with his family. He looks forward to working hard to rebuild his career and his life," Wyda said in a statement.

Two Maryland men who were convicted of violating the U.S. trade embargo with Iran — one of whom helped the Islamic Republic launch its first satellite into space — are reportedly among those to be released from federal prison in the United States as part of a deal to free four Americans held in Iran.

Iranian media said that Ali Saboonchi, who lived in Parkville, and Nader Modanlou, who lived in Potomac, were among seven Iranians who would receive clemency as part of the agreement.

The exchange came as the United Nations announced Saturday that Iran had met its initial obligations under the landmark nuclear weapons deal negotiated between Iran, the United States and other nations last year.

That announcement means sanctions are lifted and Iran will soon be able to access tens of billions of dollars that have been frozen.

With the removal of sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy for years, the Islamic Republic hopes to rejoin the global economy and end its pariah status.

The Obama administration, instrumental in negotiating the nuclear deal, praised it as an achievement of diplomacy. But critics, including Republicans at home and allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, say Iran cannot be trusted.

The Americans to be released include Washington Post Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian, who had been held since July 2014 on espionage and other charges. Iran also agreed to continue to try to find a fifth American, Robert Levinson, who was working in an unauthorized CIA operation when he disappeared in Iran in 2007, a U.S. official said.

The United States has offered clemency to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual citizens, who were convicted in the United States or awaiting trial, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. The United States also removed so-called red notices from Interpol and dismissed charges against 14 Iranians who it believed would never be extradited.

Saboonchi, 35, was convicted by a federal jury in Greenbelt in 2014 on several counts of exporting goods and services to Iran between 2009 and 2013 and sentenced to two years in prison.

He was working as an electrician and studying for a Ph.D. at Morgan State University when he was charged, his lawyer said at his sentencing hearing.

He was being held at a low-security prison in Virginia and was scheduled to be released at the end of November, according to Bureau of Prisons records.

Modanlou, 55, a U.S. citizen who was born in Iran, was convicted in 2013 of offenses connected to a conspiracy to illegally send satellite technology to Iran. Prosecutors said the complicated scheme helped Iran launch a satellite equipped with a camera from Russia in 2005.

Modanlou was sentenced to eight years in prison, which he was serving at the same Virginia facility as Saboonchi, according to the Bureau of Prisons. He was due for release in 2021.

Relatives of the two men, reached by phone Saturday, declined to comment.

Rezaian, 39, a native of Marin County in California, had been held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for what the Fars News Agency in Iran, citing an Iranian Revolutionary Guard report Saturday, said were his purported "attempts to help the U.S. Senate to advance its regime change plots in Iran."

But Rezaian, a widely respected bureau chief for The Post in Tehran since 2012, appeared to have been a victim of both international and Iranian domestic politics. His imprisonment has seriously affected his health, family members have said.

The other U.S.-Iranian nationals released were identified as Amir Mirza Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine arrested as an alleged spy for the Central Intelligence Agency; Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor whose detention has been widely reported; and Nostratollah Khosravi.

Attorneys for Hekmati and Rezaian have denied the charges against them.

Iranian news media identified the other Iranian Americans freed from U.S. jails as Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afqahi, Arash Ghahreman, Touraj Faridi and Nima Golestaneh.

Rumors have circulated for months that some U.S. citizens being held in Iran could be released as part of a prisoner exchange for Iranians held in U.S. jails on charges relating to violating sanctions against the country. But until Saturday there was no progress reported on behind-the-scenes talks to free the prisoners.

The prisoner exchange likely would have been approved by Iran's highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"In line with ratifications of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the Islamic establishment's interests, four Iranian prisoners, who hold dual nationality, have been released within the framework of a prisoner swap," Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said in a statement Saturday that was reported by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and has treated all four jailed U.S.-Iranian nationals as Iranian citizens.

The releases took place amid a warming of relations between the U.S. and Iran after the nuclear weapons agreement was hammered out last summer.

The arms deal was signed by Iran and six other nations and has led to a surprisingly close diplomatic relationship between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. The Obama administration argues that the deal will block Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a generation.

But the deal has sparked harsh criticism from conservatives in both nations, including among Republican presidential candidates, as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia. They and U.S. Republicans argue that Iran cannot be trusted and will find ways to conceal continued nuclear development.

To meet its obligations, Iran had to remove the core of the plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak, then fill the reactor with concrete and destroy it; dismantle or mothball thousands of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium; and ship nearly its entire stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing.

Iranian and U.S. officials have said all these steps have been taken, more than tripling the time Iran would need to produce a single nuclear weapon.

Once certified, the government in Tehran will quickly gain access to more than $50 billion in frozen assets and oil revenue, mostly held in Asian banks. The U.S. embargo on trade with Iran will continue, but several exceptions will be allowed, including the import and export of foodstuffs.

Iranian individuals will be removed from U.S. government blacklists, while Europe will allow trade in software, gold and metals, and transportation equipment. Iran will be allowed to rejoin the international banking system, and will be permitted to resume selling oil and other energy supplies on the open market.

In recent months, business delegations from Europe, Asia and elsewhere have been making the rounds in Tehran with an eye toward new business opportunities. The nation of 80 million has long been economically isolated by sanctions.

Supporters have hailed the deal as a victory for diplomacy that has already had benefits, including, in addition to Saturday's prisoner releases, the quick freeing this week of 10 U.S. sailors who were captured in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. That incident was resolved within 24 hours after numerous telephone conversations between Zarif and Kerry.

"Today is a day when we proved that threats, sanctions, intimidation, pressure don't work," Zarif told reporters in Vienna. "Respect works. Through respect, through dialogue, through negotiations, we can in fact reach mutually acceptable solutions."

The United States and Iran have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1980. Leaders of both nations have stressed that formal diplomatic ties still appear a long way off after decades of hostility.

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