President Barack Obama pardoned three Iranians charged with sanctions violations as U.S. authorities moved to drop charges or commute prison sentences for five other men, according to court records and people familiar with the matter.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The moves came as Iran released four Americans held in Iranian jails and as major powers prepared to implement a nuclear deal that would lift economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for steps to curb its nuclear program.
The men pardoned were Bahram Mechanic, Tooraj Faridi, and Khosrow Afghahi, according to Mechanic’s lawyer, Joel Androphy. They were accused in 2015 of shipping electronics to Iran. Mechanic and Afghahi were being held without bail in Houston, while Faridi was out on bail. All three are Iranian-American dual citizens and had pleaded not guilty.
Androphy said Mechanic and Afghahi had not been released yet and that their release was contingent on the four American prisoners leaving Iran.
“We’re ecstatic that the president has decided to pardon them for basically trade issues,” Androphy told Reuters.
The U.S. Justice Department also moved to drop sanctions charges against four other men who are outside the United States, according to electronic court filings.
U.S. authorities have considered three of them fugitives and had been seeking extradition from Malaysia for one.
A spokesman for the Justice Department referred questions to the White House.
Authorities were also working to obtain early release for Ali Saboonchi, convicted of export violations in 2014, according to people familiar with the matter. Between 2009 and 2013, Saboonchi and several associates tried to export industrial parts to customers in Iran, according to an indictment filed in 2013. He was sentenced to two years in prison and was due to be released in November 2016.
U.S. officials characterized the move as a humanitarian gesture, but one sanctions expert said the leniency shown toward Iranians accused of sanctions violations could set a bad precedent.
“Iran may think it can detain U.S. citizens in order to get releases of people arrested on sanctions charges,” said David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Citing “significant foreign policy interests” of the United States, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Texas asked federal judges on early Saturday morning to dismiss charges against the four Iranians. Dozens of Iranians have been charged with U.S. sanctions violations since 2008.
The electronic filings came hours before U.S. officials said the four Americans being held in Iran were being released.