(JTA) — The Obama administration prisoner exchange with Iran allegedly involved dropping prosecutions against more Iranian fugitives than previously known, including a top procurer of material with nuclear applications.
Some of the seven men freed in the exchange in January 2016 were accused by the Obama administration’s Justice Department of posing threats to national security. In addition, the Justice Department dropped charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other fugitive men, the Politico news website reported in a major investigative article.
Through its actions, the Obama administration undermined its high profile National Counterproliferation Initiative “at a time when it was making unprecedented headway in thwarting Iran’s proliferation networks,” Politico reported Monday.
It quoted former Obama administration officials, without identifying them, as saying that the dropping of charges was a result of weighing one exigency — pursuing a deal that they believed would neutralize Iran’s nuclear weapons capability — against another, pursuing the individuals seeking to advance that capability.
The prisoner exchange that took place in January 2016 was meant to secure the implementation of the nuclear deal reached in 2015 between six major powers and Iran that swapped sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as gain the release of five Americans who were being held by the Islamic Republic. At the time, the administration described the seven freed Iranians as “civilians” accused or suspected only of “sanctions-related offenses” and “violations of the trade embargo.”
The Politico investigation asserted that as far back as the fall of 2014, as negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal continued, the Obama administration dialed back significant investigations and prosecutions of Iranian procurement networks operating in the U.S. The article cited interviews with key participants at all levels of government and an extensive review of court records and other documents.
Politico reported that many experienced agents and prosecutors now say they are reluctant to pursue counterproliferation cases for fear they won’t go anywhere.
“It’s entirely possible that during the pendency of the negotiations, that folks who were doing their jobs, doing the investigations and bringing cases, having no understanding of and insight into the other process, were frustrated because they don’t feel like their stuff is moving forward,” an anonymous Obama official told Politico. “Or they were not getting answers, because there are these entirely appropriate discussions happening on the policy side. That doesn’t strike me as being, a, unusual or, b, wrong,” the official added. “But I completely understand why it’s frustrating.”
Politico said the “biggest fish” released in the prisoner swap 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 through China, including hundreds of U.S.-made sensors for Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges.
N.Y. Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of the two Jewish Republicans in the House, told the New York Post that the report on the prisoner swap suggests that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was “brutally incompetent.” Senior officials from the Obama administration told Politico that the prisoner swap was “a bargain for the U.S.,” and that the Justice Department and FBI vetted the 21 Iranians.
Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and private detective who went missing from Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 during what has since been revealed as a rogue CIA operation, was not among the five Americans released, though the Obama administration said Iran had pledged to help track him.
Last week, the Trump administration pledged to review U.S. policy toward Iran, as have both houses of Congress. In certifying that Iran is living up to the deal in word, Trump said Iran is “not living up to the spirit of it.” On Monday, the president told The Associated Press that it is “possible” that the United States will not remain in the nuclear deal.