A U.S. judge is challenging the government's move to drop charges against an Iranian man accused of sanctions violations as part of a U.S. prisoner swap agreement with Iran last month.
U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel threatened in a court order last week to deny the government's dismissal of charges against Alireza Moazami Goudarzi unless prosecutors could justify the "significant foreign policy interests" they cited as a reason to drop the case.
Castel is the only judge known to have questioned the terms of the prisoner-swap deal negotiated secretly by top diplomats in Tehran and Washington. He said the court should not approve the dismissal request for Gourdazi if it was prompted by "considerations clearly contrary to the public interest."
The challenge by the New York-based federal judge follows complaints by Gourdazi's co-defendant that he was sentenced to nine years in jail for the same crimes Gourdazi allegedly committed -- seeking to buy prohibited military aircraft parts for Iran.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan on February 1 said the dismissal of charges against Gourdazi and 13 other Iranians was necessary to obtain the release of five American prisoners held in Iran. He sought to assure the judge that the prisoner swap was a "one-time, unique agreement based on extraordinary circumstances."
"The United States government has made clear to the government of Iran that the United States does not expect to repeat these actions," Cronan told the court.
He added that U.S. authorities had been unable to locate Goudarzi since he was detained briefly and released by Malaysia in 2012, so there is no "realistic prospect" of securing his arrest and extradition to face the charges anytime soon.
It is rare for judges to challenge dismissals by prosecutors, which are usually granted without much further inquiry,
The January 16 dismissal request for Gourdazi was part of a wider swap deal with Tehran, with U.S. officials moving to drop international arrest orders and charges against 14 Iranians outside U.S. borders. The administration also offered clemency deals to seven Iranians in the United States, most of them imprisoned for, or charged with, sanctions violations.
In return, Iran released five Americans it had been holding, including Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post's Iranian-American Tehran bureau chief.
The release of the Americans coincided with the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran, which followed verification of Tehran's compliance with negotiated curbs on its nuclear activities.
The prisoner swap was criticized by Republicans for offering too much to Iran in return for the release of the Americans.
To comply with the prisoner-swap deal, the U.S. government has filed motions to dismiss charges against other prisoners in jurisdictions including Arizona, Washington, D.C., and California, Reuters reported.
With reporting by Reuters and AP