Report: Iran May Demand Biden Free More Prisoners After $6 Billion Ransom Payment

An Iranian protester wearing a fake military uniform with a portrait of Iran's Suprem
Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

According to Iranian state media, President Joe Biden’s lopsided hostage deal with Tehran includes both a $6 billion ransom payment and releasing five Iranians jailed in the United States for sanctions violations, in exchange for five American hostages to be released by Iran.

“The primary objective behind the prisoner exchange deal between Iran and the United States is to secure the release of our nationals who are currently imprisoned,” Kazen Gharibabadi, Secretary-General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, said on August 16. 

The Biden White House has said very little on the record about the deal, but Voice of America News (VOA) on Thursday put together a list of 11 Iranians who might be released as part of the deal.

The list included both Iranians and Iranian American dual nationals:

Six of the identified individuals are Iranian American dual nationals: Manssor Arbabsiar, Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Behrouz Mokhtari, Reza Olangian and Erfan Salmanzadeh. Two of them are Iranians with U.S. permanent residency: Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi and Amin Hasanzadeh. And three are Iranians with no legal status in the U.S.: Mehrdad Ansari, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Malek Mohammad Balouchzehi.

Three of the 11 individuals are on supervised pretrial release: Afrasiabi, Hasanzadeh and Kafrani. Four are serving sentences in federal prisons: Ansari, Arbabsiar, Kashani and Olangian. Two are in post-sentencing detention awaiting transfer to federal prisons: Mokhtari and Salmanzadeh. Of the remaining two, Bahadorifar is on supervised post-sentencing release for planned medical treatments pending surrender to prison in October, while Balouchzehi is in federal detention pending sentencing in October.

Mokhtari checked a few boxes as a possible subject of Tehran’s interest: he was on supervised release from a three-year prison sentence in July when the FBI raided his house in Virginia and discovered he was planning to obtain a new passport and travel to Iran. That would have been a clear violation of his bond, so he was arrested again.

Three of the 11 people on VOA’s list were jailed on charges other than sanctions violations: Malek Mohammad Balouchezi is serving time for international drug trafficking, Manssor Arbabsiar allegedly plotted to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, and Erfan Salmanzadeh was “convicted of using a weapon of mass destruction to detonate an explosive at his Texas home.”

Balouchezi was busted in Nairobi in October 2021 after a worldwide sting operation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Prosecutors said he “sought to expand his significant drug trafficking operations by importing massive quantities of heroin into the United States.” He was convicted on charges of conspiring to import and distribute heroin in May 2023 and is scheduled to be sentenced in September. If Iran can secure his release as part of the Biden hostage deal, it would be an immense humiliation for the U.S. government.

Arbabsiar was arrested in September 2011 for his role in “a nefarious international plot concocted by members of the Iranian military to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and as many innocent bystanders as necessary to get the job done,” as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara put it.

Arbabsiar allegedly worked with members of the Qods Force, Iran’s unit in charge of terrorism and destabilizing activities on foreign soil, to plan a restaurant bombing that would kill the Saudi ambassador. He hired an assassin for $1.5 million who turned out to be a confidential source for the DEA. When the ersatz hitman pointed out that a bomb attack would probably kill innocent bystanders, Arbabsiar allegedly replied, “They want that guy done. If the hundred go with him, f**k them.”

Salmanzadeh videotaped himself working on a plot to blow up Tascosa High School in Texas in July 2021.

“We are going to blast the school,” he said in Farsi in the video, proudly indicating an assortment of bombs and a suicide vest he had created. Fortunately, the only thing he managed to destroy was his Xbox.

Salmanzadeh’s neighbors complained about the noise when he began testing his handmade arsenal. His weapons used TATP, an extremely volatile home-brewed explosive. When the police raided his home, they found plane tickets to California dated for July 28, 2021, suggesting he planned to escape after detonating bombs at the school.

“Armed with internet research, this defendant was able to create homemade explosives capable of wreaking mass casualties – casualties he dreamed of inflicting on innocent high schoolers,” said U.S. Attorney Chad Meachem in December 2022, after Salmanzadeh pled guilty to attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction.

Salmanzadeh, a naturalized citizen of the United States who was born in Iran, was sentenced to over 11 years in federal prison in July 2023. 

Nizar Zakka, president of Hostage Aid Worldwide (HAW), told VOA that Iran would probably avoid demanding the release of hardcore criminals like Balouchezi and Salmanzadeh, focusing instead on prisoners it argues were illegitimately convicted of violating sanctions.

Zakka also suspected Iran has not named the individuals it expects Biden to free because some of them are dual nationals who might not want to return to Iran.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) researcher Andrea Stricker agreed that Iran will want sanctions violators released because they “represent the nuts and bolts of the Iranian weapons system, so the regime tries to protect them.”

Stricker said it would be easier for Biden to release prisoners who are near the end of their sentences anyway, such as Mehrdad Ansari and Kambiz Attar Kashani, but she still opposed prisoner releases on principle, because it would undo the hard work of U.S. law enforcement and create an “equivalence” between Iranian criminal operatives and the Americans who were kidnapped on specious espionage charges and held prisoner by Tehran.

“Rather than encouraging further hostage-taking by swapping people and in effect paying a ransom, a U.S. administration should demand that no more hostage-taking occurs and threaten extremely negative consequences for Iran if it does,” Stricker advised.


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