Hostage seizures and arrests have been a recurrent feature of the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran since revolutionary students captured the U.S. Embassy—and 52 diplomats—on Nov. 4, 2019. That 444-day drama ended on January 20, 1981, the day President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. But over the next four decades, Iran sporadically detained dozens of other Americans and Iranian-Americans. Several were tried and convicted on charges of espionage or undermining Iranian national security. Others were simply held indefinitely in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Over the years, the United States also arrested dozens of Iranians or Iranian-Americans on charges ranging from sanctions-busting to fraud.
In January 2016, Iran and the United States organized a prisoner swap that was timed with final implementation of the nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—reached between Iran and the world’s six major powers in 2015. Iran released one American and four Iranian-Americans, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. The United States pardoned or commuted the sentences of one Iranian and six Iranian-Americans. But not all detainees were released by either nation.
As of December 2019, at least six Americans were either imprisoned or missing in Iran. The United States held 29 Iranian citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in November 2019. Ten Iranians were sentenced for drug offenses, six for fraud/bribery/extortion, two for burglary/larceny, one for weapons/explosives, one for a sex offense, and one for robbery. The remaining eight were unsentenced inmates.
As tensions mounted between Washington and Tehran in 2019, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed a second swap of prisoners or detainees. “I put this offer on the table publicly now. Exchange them,” Zarif said at the Asia Society, in New York, in April. “All these people that are in prison inside the United States, on extradition requests from the United States, we believe their charges are phony. The United States believes the charges against these people in Iran are phony. Why? Let's not discuss that. Let's have an exchange. I'm ready to do it. And I have authority to do it. We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready.”
In October 2019, Zarif said that Iran had sent the United States a list of Iranians in U.S. jails for a proposed prisoner swap. Tehran did not publish the list, but Zarif pointed to the case of Iranian stem-cell scientist Masoud Soleimani, who was arrested in 2018 for trying to export vials of growth hormone to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. The U.S. State Department refused to comment on possible communication with Iran on a prisoner exchange.
On March 10, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iran to release “all wrongfully detained Americans being held in Iran.” He warned that the United States would hold Iran accountable if any of the American prisoners died from coronavirus, which had spread to at least three Iranian prisons by February 25. “Our response will be decisive,” Pompeo said. Pompeo added that Iran’s decision to grant furloughs to 70,000 prisoners showed “its ability to grant clemency and show mercy.”
The following are profiles of Americans detained or missing in Iran and Iranians detained by the United States as of November 2019 on the 40th anniversary of the original hostage saga. The profiles are arranged by when the individuals were first detained, with the most recent cases first.
Americans Detained in Iran
U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, 46, from Imperial Beach, California, was arrested on unspecified charges in late July 2018 while visiting his girlfriend in Iran. In March 2019, White was sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting the supreme leader and posting a private photograph publicly.
White arrived in Iran on July 9, 2018 and never made it onto his return flight on July 27, 2018, according to his mother, Joanne White. She last spoke with him on July 13, 2018; she filed a missing-person report when Michael did not return on his scheduled flight. In December 2018, the State Department informed her that White was being held in an Iranian prison and that U.S. officials were seeking access to him through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has provided consular services for Americans since 1980.
On March 11, 2019, an Iranian prosecutor said White had been sentenced, but he did not elaborate on the charges. An attorney for the family, Mark Zaid, later said that he was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly insulting the supreme leader and 10 years for posting a private photograph on social media. Zaid said that he believed the sentences would run concurrently.
In August 2019, Swiss diplomats were granted permission to visit White in prison.The Swiss were told that prison doctors removed melanoma from his back earlier that month. White "continues to have medical issues” related to his cancer and previous chemotherapy treatments, according to a report from the Swiss embassy. He is currently awaiting a ruling on his appeal.
In January 2020, White's mother released audio from a phone conversation she had with him in prison. He alleged that he had been subject to torture and inhuman conditions. "They've done everything to press me," White said. "They put me in isolation. They subjected me to torture conditions—deprivation of food and water numerous times."
On January 24, 2018, the Revolutionary Guards intelligence organization detained Morad Tahbaz, a dual American-Iranian citizen, and eight other environmental activists accused of espionage. Their trial began on in January 2019 but was delayed until the beginning of August. On November 20, 2019, an Iranian court sentenced Tahbaz to ten years in prison.
The activists were members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation conducting research on Iran’s endangered cheetah population. On October 24, 2018, the judiciary charged Tahbaz with “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.” One of the four charges against him included “sowing corruption on earth,” which typically carries the death penalty. But on October 14, 2019, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmail said the capital charge had been dropped. The activists still faced charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “contacts with U.S. enemy government … for the purpose of spying,” according to the judiciary.
Tahbaz reportedly has cancer and his health has continued to deteriorate because he has not received medication and treatment for more than a year.
Morad Tahbaz is one of at least nine environmental activists detained in Iran as security forces worked to quash an unexpectedly broad protest movement https://t.co/GuOX4prqxh— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) February 13, 2018
Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari
Husband and wife Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards intelligence organization in July 2016 on charges of espionage and indecent behavior, although details about their case were only published in December 2016. Vafadari is a dual citizen of the United States and Iran. Niasari holds a U.S. green card. On July 21, 2018, Vafadari and Niasari were released on bail after having their initial sentences reduced earlier in 2018. They were awaiting a final verdict on their appeal request as of late July 2018.
The couple reportedly managed an art gallery in Tehran. Niasari was apprehended by IRGC intelligence at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran before leaving to visit family abroad, according to Vafadari’s sister. Soon after, Niasari was ordered to call her husband and ask him to come to the airport, where he too was apprehended.
In a January 2018 letter obtained by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Vafadari stated that he had been sentenced to 27 years in prison,124 lashes, confiscation of all assets, and a fine. He also cited charges related to espionage, alcohol consumption, receiving gifts of alcohol, and hosting parties. His wife Niasari had received 16 years. Vafadari attributed his treatment and sentence to being Zoroastrian and a dual national. Their sentences were subsequently reduced to 16 years and 10 years, respectively.
Iran's IRGC has arrested Karan Vafadari an Iranian-American & his wife 3 months ago, a family member says.They ran an art gallery in Tehran. pic.twitter.com/JT8gfDvnwN— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) December 2, 2016
Baquer Namazi was reportedly arrested on February 22, 2016, four months after his son Siamak was detained. The elder Namazi, age 80 at the time of his arrest, is a former provincial governor and UNICEF representative who worked in several countries, including Kenya, Somalia and Egypt. His work largely focused on aid for women and children affected by war. Baquer Namazi most recently ran Hamyaran, an umbrella organization of a number of different Iranian NGOs. On October 18, 2016, he was sentenced to 10 years for allegedly cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on Iran.
On January 15, 2018, Baquer was rushed to the hospital after a severe drop in blood pressure and irregular heartbreak. He was granted a four-day medical leave beginning on January 28. He was told to report to the government’s medical examiner on February 4, and that his leave would be extended until then. The examiner recommended a three-month leave on medical grounds. But on February 6, 2018, Namazi received a call ordering him to return to Evin Prison.
On August 28, 2018, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that Namazi had been released on medical furlough “for a considerable length of time” due to complications from his heart condition. He has to report back to Evin Prison weekly and is unable to leave the country to undergo heart surgery, according to his family.
Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi was arrested in October 2015. On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that Namazi had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On October 18, 2016, after being tried without access to a lawyer, Namazi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collaborating with a foreign government.
On October 17, 2016, the Mizan news agency, the judiciary news service, posted a video that appeared to show Namazi in the hours immediately following his arrest. The short clip was an anti-American montage that showed images of a captured American surveillance drone, Jason Rezaian (a dual-national journalist who was accused of spying for the United States), U.S. sailors kneeling before being detained by Iranian forces and more.
Five other defendants were also convicted and given similar sentences, including Siamak Namazi’s father Baquer. On August 26, 2018 the Tehran Appeals Court denied the appeals of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, upholding their convictions of collaborating with the U.S. government. The family's U.S.-based lawyer Jared Genser condemned the move as a “cruel and unjust decision” of the court. Namazi and his father were being held in Evin Prison as of 2019.
Clip shows detention moment of American-Iranian Siamak Namazi in Iran pic.twitter.com/i9hQbLvxNh— Sobhan Hassanvand (@Hassanvand) October 16, 2016
Iranians Detained in the United States
On November 7, 2019, Amin Hasanzadeh, an Iranian national and U.S. permanent resident, was arrested on charges of fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property. Federal prosecutors accused Hasanzadeh of stealing sensitive technical data from his employer and sending it to his brother, who is connected to the Iranian military.
The Justice Department said that before coming to the United States in 2010 Hasanzadeh served in the Iranian military and worked at a company linked to "the Iranian government's Cruise Division of Air & Space Organization." In 2015, Hasanzadeh began working at a Detroit-based contracting company connected to the defense, aerospace and auto industries. Between January 2015 and June 216, he allegedly sent his brother in Iran confidential documents on sensitives projects such as a "real-time supercomputer with applications that would include aerospace applications." His brother worked for multiple companies linked to Iran’s military programs, including cruise missile research and nuclear proliferation activities.
Majid Ghorbani and Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar
On November 5, 2019, Majid Ghorbani, an Iranian citizen and U.S. permanent resident, pleaded guilty to one count of violating U.S. sanctions for his role in an Iranian espionage ring. Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar, a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen listed in the same indictment, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of acting as an undeclared agent of the Iranian government. Doostdar was scheduled for sentencing on December 17, 2019, and Ghorbani for January 15, 2020, following plea deals with prosecutors. Both men have remained in custody since their arrests.
Ghorbani was tasked by the Iranian government to collect information on Americans involved with the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), according to U.S. prosecutors. The MEK, designated a terrorist organization by the United States until 2012, is an Iranian dissident group that seeks regime change. Doostdar reportedly traveled from Iran to provide Ghorbani with instructions from Iranian intelligence. “The Iranian government thought it could get away with conducting surveillance on individuals in the United States by sending one of its agents here to task a permanent resident with conducting and collecting that surveillance,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu.
On October 25, 2019, the United States sentenced Behrooz Behroozian, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran, to 20 months in federal prison for illegally exporting gas and oil pipeline parts to Iran in violation of export control laws. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Behroozian used a Ohio computer parts company, Comtech International, as a front to conceal the illicit sale of pipeline components, which had commercial and military value. The Justice Department said Behroozian profited $35,000 to $40,000 per year from the illegal sales.
U.S. prosecutors said the case demonstrated Iran’s “desire for specialized American technology” and Behroozian’s willingness to violate export control laws for personal gain. “Behroozian profited financially by strengthening the economy of one of the world’s most infamous state sponsors of terrorism,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman. “The parts obtained by Behroozian benefited the Iranian gas and petrochemical industry. Not only did Behroozian’s crimes diminish the effectiveness of American trade sanctions but they also undermined America’s national security.”
Mehdi “Eddie” Hashemi
On August 20, 2019, U.S. authorities arrested Mehdi “Eddie” Hashemi, a U.S.-Iran dual citizen, on 21 charges of illegally exporting prohibited manufacturing equipment to Iran. Hashemi would face a statutory maximum penalty of 320 years in federal prison if he were convicted on all the charges. A court date was still pending as of November 2019.
Prosecutors accused Hashemi of participating in a scheme to ship computer numerical control machines, which are used to process raw metals and other materials, to Iran on behalf of a Tehran-based company. The Justice Department said Hashemi shipped the equipment to the United Arab Emirates “under false and forged invoices and packaging lists” before the materials were forwarded to Iran.
On July 19, 2019, Mahin Mojtahedzadeh pleaded guilty to conspiring to unlawfully export gas turbine parts from the United States to Iran. She was due to receive her sentence on November 12, 2019, which could include up to 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Mahin was President and Managing Director of ETCO-FZC, an export company that worked with companies in Canada and Germany to evade U.S. sanctions and illegally deliver $3 million dollars’ worth of turbine parts to Iran. “By supplying Iran with millions of dollars’ worth of illegally exported turbine machinery, the defendant provided equipment that is critically important for Iran’s infrastructure,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers. “This sort of sanctions violation allows the Iranian government to withstand the pressure of U.S. sanctions – pressure that is intended to end Iran’s malign behavior. We will continue to hold to account those who aid Iran in evading the United States’ comprehensive embargo.”
On July 16, 2019, the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of Behzad Pourghannad, Ali Reza Shokri and Farzin Faridmanesh for illegally exporting “many tons” of carbon fiber to Iran. The United States successfully extradited Pourghannad from Germany, but the other two defendants, Ali Reza Shokri and Farzin Faridmanesh, remained at large, according to federal authorities. On August 29, 2019, Pourghannad pleaded guilty to conspiracy to circumvent U.S. export controls on carbon fiber. On November 14, 2019, the Justice Department announced that Pourghannad was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
Prosecutors said the businessmen, operating out of Iran between 2008 and 2013, obtained large quantities of carbon fiber, a controlled substance with military and nuclear uses, from an unidentified U.S. dealer and exported it to Iran through third countries. Export documents falsely described the material as acrylic or polyester. “Carbon fiber has many aerospace and defense applications, and is strictly controlled to ensure that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Pourghannad and his co-defendants allegedly went to great lengths to circumvent these controls and the United States' export laws. Together with our law enforcement partners, we will continue to protect our nation's assets and protect our national security.”
Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad
On March 20, 2019, the United States arrested Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, an Iranian national, on charges of evading U.S. sanctions. On March 29, Nejad pleaded not guilty to all charges. U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Moses denied Sadr’s request to be released on bail, claiming his wealth and global connections made him a flight risk.
Sadr allegedly used a network of front companies and foreign bank accounts to mask Iranian business dealings in Venezuela. “For years, Sadr allegedly funneled more than $115 million of a nearly half-billion-dollar Venezuelan construction contract through the U.S. banking system, using entities in Switzerland, Turkey, and the British Virgin Islands to conceal Iran’s identity. The arrest of Sadr shows that U.S. economic sanctions against Iran are for real, and violators will be exposed and prosecuted,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.
Sadr, the chairman of Maltese-registered Pilatus Bank, was charged in a six-count indictment and taken into custody in Dulles, Virginia. U.S. officials said Sadr’s family controlled the Stratus Group, an Iranian conglomerate company that was contracted to construct thousands of housing units in Venezuela. Pilatus Bank's assets were frozen by the Malta Financial Service Authority after Sadr’s arrest.
Sadr Emad-Vaez, Pouran Aazad and Hassan Ali Moshir-Fatemi
On April 27, 2018, Sadr Emad-Vaez, Pouran Aazad and Hassan Ali Moshir-Fatemi were arrested for violating U.S. sanctions by exporting automotive parts to Iran. The three men each faced a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and $1,250,000 in total fines. They were all released after posting bond were awaiting court proceedings as of April 2018.
The three businessmen, all Iranian-born and naturalized U.S. citizens, were executives of Ghare Sabz Company, a Tehran-based manufacturing company. U.S. prosecutors accused the men of using “an elaborate system of international wire transfers” to fund their operation to acquire auto parts from international manufacturers and ship them to Iran.
On November 29, 2017, Alireza Jalali, arrested in the same case as co-defendant Negar Ghodskani, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate the illegal export of technology to Iran. On March 20, 2018, Jalali was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his participation in the illicit procurement network. News of his release had not been published as of November 2019.
U.S. Detainees Released by Iran
Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang was arrested on August 8, 2016 while conducting research in Iran on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty for his doctoral dissertation. On July 17, 2017, Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of spying, according to Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, and Iranian media.
A U.S. citizen “was gathering intelligence and was directly guided by the U.S.,” Ejehi announced at a weekly press briefing on July 16. He noted the sentence could be appealed, but did not elaborate or reveal the individual’s name.
On December 7, 2019, Wang was released in Switzerland in exchange for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian national held in an Atlanta prison for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions. President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked the Swiss for their help in arranging the trade.
On September 18, 2015, Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and permanent U.S. resident, was detained on his way to the airport after attending a business conference by invite of the Iranian government. He was charged with having deep ties to the U.S. intelligence and military apparatuses by the Revolutionary Guards. On September 20, 2016, Zakka’s lawyer announced that he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $4.2 million for collaborating against the state. On June 11, 2019, Iran released Zakka following intense negotiations between Lebanese and Iranian officials. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political movement and militia backed by Iran, facilitated as well.
The following individuals were released as part of a January 2016 prisoner swap that coincided with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. The 14 months of secret diplomacy began on the sidelines of nuclear talks between the United States and Iran. A fifth American, Matthew Trevithick, was also released by Iran, but U.S. officials said he was not part of the prisoner exchange.
Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was detained on July 22, 2014, and charged with espionage, “collaborating with hostile governments,” and “propaganda against the establishment.” In a press conference on October 11, 2015, Judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei confirmed that Rezaian had been found guilty but did not provide details on his sentence or the specific charges on which he was convicted.
Amir Hekmati was arrested in August 2011 while visiting his grandmother in Iran. He was charged with espionage, waging war against God, and corrupting the earth. In January 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the first American to receive the death sentence in Iran since the revolution. But in March 2012, a retrial overturned the espionage conviction and instead charged him with “cooperating with hostile governments.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Rev. Saeed Abedini was detained on July 28, 2012, and initially imprisoned in September 2012. He had been in Iran to visit family and construct orphanages in partnership with Iranian Christians. His closed trial was held on January 22, 2013. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, reportedly for “undermining national security.”
Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, a former California-based carpet seller and F.B.I. consultant, was arrested in May 2015 by Iranian intelligence agents when he tried to leave the country. His lawyer said his arrest had been “the result of a misunderstanding.” He reportedly opted to stay in Iran immediately following his release.
On December 7, 2015, Matthew Trevithick, an American student studying Farsi At Tehran University, was arrested and accused of trying to overthrow the Iranian government. He denied the charges and was placed in solitary confinement for 29 days. He was finally released on January 16, 2016, after 40 days in Evin Prison.
Died in Iranian Custody
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing on March 9, 2007, during a visit to Kish Island. The location and fate of Robert Levinson remains unknown.
Initial reports indicated that he was researching a cigarette smuggling case as a private investigator. “He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” the State Department said in 2007. Iran has denied knowing the status or location of Levinson, who turned 70 in 2018.
In 2013, the Associated Press reported that Levinson had been working on a private contract for U.S. intelligence. In late 2013, the family acknowledged that his visit to Kish Island was partly related to his contract work for the CIA. Levinson served in the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration for 28 years, where he focused on investigating organized crime in Russia. He retired from the FBI in 1998 and began working as a private investigator.
On March 25, the wife and children of Levinson announced “with aching hearts” that U.S. officials informed them that he had died in Iranian custody. Levinson had been on a rogue CIA mission when he disappeared on Kish Island. He was the longest held hostage in U.S. history.
Iranian Detainees Released by the United States
In October 2018, the United States arrested Masoud Soleimani, a stem cell researcher and visiting scholar at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, with a secret indictment on charges that he had violated U.S. sanctions against the transport of biological material. On December 7, 2019, the United States released Soleimani and dropped all charges in exchange for the release of American graduate student, Xiyue Wang, who was detained in Iran since 2016 on espionage charges.
The FBI accused Soleimani of trying to export vials of growth hormone to Iran in September 2016 through the help of a former student. Federal prosecutors said Soleimani ordered the proteins from U.S. companies and solicited Mahboobe Ghaedi, a student and permanent U.S. resident from Iran, to bring the samples back to Iran when she traveled to visit family.
The U.S. Justice Department charged Soleimani with two counts of conspiring and attempting to export biological materials to Iran without authorization. Soleimani’s lawyers claim he was simply trying to obtain the samples for a fraction of the price he would have paid for them in Iran. They argued that export licenses were not required since the proteins were obtained for noncommercial use. The United States revoked Soleimani’s and refused to grant him bail while he awaits trial.