Immigration Implications of the U.S.-Iran Prisoner Swap

By Dan Cadman on January 19, 2016

Details of the U.S.-Iran prisoner swap have been finding their way into various media accounts, some of which I have found passing strange (the details that is, not the media, although on sober reflection the latter's probably a truism too). Note, though, that it is probably more accurate to describe this deal as a trade-off, and not a Cold War-style Checkpoint Charlie "swap", for reasons discussed below.

The abridged version: Iran has released a total of five U.S. citizens, some (perhaps all) of whom appear to have been arrested and held on trumped-up charges. In return, the United States has released, pardoned, or dropped charges against seven individuals, and agreed to withdraw Interpol "red notices" against another 14.

Oddity No. 1: All of the individuals to whom the United States has granted pardons, clemency, or the like had been charged, convicted, or were serving sentences for violating federal laws related to stealing secrets, defense materials, or military hardware for illegal transfer to the Islamic Republic for use by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — you know, the same ones who recently seized at gunpoint, and held hostage, American sailors who inadvertently strayed into waters claimed by Iran in the Persian Gulf. (The seizures, of course, gave the Iranians a prime opportunity to examine the two Navy vessels in great detail. One wonders what marvels of GPS, radar, or sonar technology just got transferred as a result.) In other words, when you strip away the niceties, all of the individuals on the U.S. side of the trade were engaged in espionage against us on behalf of a rogue regime. This is apparently because they were the ones the Iranians pressed hardest to have released.

Significantly, one person not swapped by the Iranians was Robert Levenson, alleged to be a CIA contractor doing clandestine work in Iran at the time of his capture. They deny even knowing where he is, but the denial lacks credibility.

Oddity No. 2: Media have described six of the seven released as "dual nationals" of the United States and Iran — the seventh was born in the United States to Iranian parents; the other six are naturalized U.S. citizens originally from Iran. Here's the thing: when you take the oath of naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, among other important things, you swear to:

  • "Renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen;" and to
  • "Support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."


If the individuals took this oath in good faith, how can they possibly be "dual nationals"? But it's pretty clear from subsequent events that they didn't take the oath with any meaningful intent (other than to gain citizenship, with the pathway that it gives to jobs with access to government defense secrets and equipment). Why else were they stealing them on behalf of a nation avowedly hostile to the United States (the "Great Satan"), and that is a state sponsor of terror through use abroad of its radical Quds Force (a part of the IRGC) and its support of designated terrorist groups Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas? And why else would these individuals figure so prominently in the "short list" that Iran insisted upon before the trade could be finalized?

Ironically, though, Secretary of State John Kerry touted proudly how the United States had held tough against Iran's initially bloated list of potential "swapees", refusing to release a murderer or drug offender in order to maintain our country's "enforcement principles", stating proudly, "[B]elieve me, it's hard when somebody says to you, 'Hey, you give us this guy, we let them all out.' And you have to say no. And you know you're keeping people in a not very nice place for the next whatever number of months. ... But there have to be an enforcement of our principles and our standards here (sic). And in the end, we came out in the right place on that."

Oddity No. 3: The deal is more accurately described as a trade rather than a swap because most of the individuals benefiting from the clemencies will be staying in the United States, despite the damage they've done to U.S. national security. How can this be? Why, supreme irony of ironies, it's because they're "American citizens". If I were physically present in the room with you speaking those words, you'd see me using air quotes, something I usually detest, because the notion is so laughable. And just to rub a little salt in the wounds, the lawyers for these folks are now saying it vindicates the innocence they maintained all along — something clearly out of whack with the facts in their cases, which involved such things as setting up dummy corporations and transshipment points in foreign countries where the illegal technology and equipment transfers could take place in order to facilitate ultimate movement onward to Iran.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Iran's objections to new restrictive U.S. rules for the visa waiver program (VWP), in which I mentioned what was then a rumor about a pending swap, one that has now taken place and pretty much accords with my speculations that, on our end, it would involve releasing spies.

In the blog post, I surmised that Iran's major objection to the new rules was the fear that they could impede their ongoing, organized, and aggressive program to steal U.S. defense secrets and technology by disrupting shipments of these things out of the country, facilitated by European VWP-eligible "dual national" intermediaries who would, under the new rules, be obliged to seek visas through consular interviews. Nothing I have seen in this trade persuades me that I was wrong in my thinking.

I also mentioned in that post that Secretary Kerry had been making noise about the government issuing routine or blanket waivers to individuals such as these dual nationals who would otherwise be blocked from use of the VWP. If the administration proves true to form, look to see that shoe drop, at the expense of our national interest, in the not-too-distant future.