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 lawyers, court records and people familiar with the matter.
At the same time, the U.S. State Department said it had withdrawn international arrest notices for 14 Iranians wanted on sanctions violations.
Those steps were part of an unusual deal negotiated in secret that saw four Americans freed by Iran in the prisoner swap and a fifth American released separately. It opened the Obama administration to immediate criticism that it had negotiated a bad deal that would set a dangerous precedent.
The prisoner deal with Iran came as major powers prepared to implement a nuclear agreement that would lift economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for steps to curb its nuclear program.
Republicans welcomed the release of Americans but criticized the leniency shown toward Iranians charged with violating sanctions which U.S. officials credit with pressuring Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program.
"(They were released) in return for people that violated Iran sanctions, Iranians that were in prison here for violating those sanctions," said Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush in New Hampshire on Saturday. "Every time we show weakness it is a victory for Iran."
The men pardoned by Obama were Bahram Mechanic, Tooraj Faridi, and Khosrow Afghahi, said 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, adding that his client had plans to eventually visit Iran again.
A lawyer for Faridi welcomed the news on Saturday, and said his client did not plan to return to Iran.
"He has no plans to go back to Iran for a visit," said Kent Schaffer, Faridi's attorney. "He fought hard to get here and he wants to stay here."
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. The White House had no immediate comment on the pardons.
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.
The pardons will dissuade prosecutors from bringing similar sanctions enforcement cases, which are complicated and can take years to prosecute, said David Hall, a former federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania and Delaware who investigated and brought charges on Iran sanctions cases.
"To know that ... your case can be used as political coinage is a strong reason to not do it," Hall said. "They're already hard enough and that's the reason there are so few of them to begin with."
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 Americans being held in Iran were being released.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington and Richard Valdmanis in New Hampshire; Editing by Kevin Krolicki, Ross Colvin and Mary Milliken)