by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
Since late October, 2018, Masoud Soleimani, a renowned Iranian professor and researcher in the field of stem cell research, hematology, and regenerative medicine, has been stranded in a federal jail in Atlanta, accused of failing to acquire the required license for the import of several human growth products. In Iran and abroad, this case has drawn a great deal of attention and has prompted Iran’s Science Minister to warn the country’s scientific community that the Trump administration is trying to lure them to the U.S. and other Western countries and then detaining them on questionable grounds. A related case is that of Jalal Rohallahnejad, an Iranian engineer, who was taken into custody in France in February, 2019, and is now on the verge of being extradited to the U.S. over his alleged attempt to procure banned material for Iran.
In Soleimani’s case, U.S. prosecutors allege that as of late 2014 he has violated the Iran sanctions regulations as set forth by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Contol (OFAC) and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, thus warranting two serious counts against him that could result, if convicted, in his imprisonment for several years. Soleimani’s defense attorneys have sought to dismiss the case, which has been put on a slow track at the pre-trial stage, and have so far failed to convince the court to allow bail for the distinguished professor, who came to US on a valid J-1 visa to conduct research at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. (The invitation letter has been appended to the motion to dismiss.) On arrival, however, he was arrested, and his visa cancelled pursuant to a pre-existing “sealed indictment.” Clearly, neither Soleimani nor the Mayo Clinic had a clue about the secret indictment when the invitation was issued.
Contrary to the assertion of some U.S. commentators, Soleimani is not accused of seeking to import prohibited and or “embargoed goods” to Iran. The U.S. government has made exceptions for the export of “humanitarian goods,” including medicine, to Iran, reflected in OFAC’s own guidelines on permissible “medical devices.” Even by the government’s own admission, the biological materials in question are completely harmless and have no nefarious purposes, which is why they are readily available at local pharmacies. The defense’s contention is that these material meet the definition of “medicine” as defined by the Federal Food and Drug Act covered by the general license standard, which authorizes a particular type of transaction without the need to apply for a license from OFAC. According to an expert witness who has testified in support of the defense, the biological goods purportedly purchased by professor Soleimani for his life-saving research are routinely used in the field of stem cell research to promote regeneration of cells, tissues, and other bodily organs. In other words, these materials do not fall under any of the excluded categories under the Iran sanctions regulations.
As of this date, the US prosecutors have yet to file a response to the motion to dismiss filed on Soleimani’s behalf. His relatives have raised alarm about the potential danger to his safety. At a minimum, Soleimani ought to be released on bail and his passport held to ensure he will not leave the country prior to his trial, according to his attorneys. An important question here is why did the U.S. government issue a visa to Soleimani when they knew, or should have known based on the existing stringent procedures for visa to Iranian citizens, who are in any event thoroughly screened due to their nationality, that he was under indictment? Of course, it is possible that the U.S. consular office that issued Soleimani’s visa did not have access to the information on his indictment, which raises the additional questions of how information is shared among the various U.S. agencies that deal with immigration and national security. And whether Soleimani should have been admitted at all, given the fact that the indictment against him preceded his request for a temporary visa. In other words, it is reasonable to argue that, legally speaking, professor Soleimani was ineligible for a U.S. visa in the first place, raising the possibility that the U.S. government deliberately sidestepped the admissibility criteria in order to secure his arrest. The U.S. cannot cancel Soleimani’s visa upon arrival, subjecting him to immediate incarceration, and still insist that the visa procedure in his case was not abused.
Even assuming that Soleimani failed to follow the (arduous) process of seeking a license for the import of human growth hormones, his negligence of (an obscure and certainly confusing) regulation would not appear to justify what is now a nearly eight-month detention, particularly since there is no dispute regarding the purely scientific nature of Soleimani’s background and conduct in question. This is not to mention the huge gap that exists between international humanitarian laws and the comprehensive Iran sanctions list that, to put it bluntly, has gone overboard, e.g., by requiring a license to import such innocuous items as dental picks and urine bottles to Iran. For thousands of Iranian-American citizens who may wish to send such items to their loved ones in Iran, the cumbersome regulations certainly pose a major obstacle.
In any event, this case undercuts U.S. claims to be on the side of Iranian people, by putting in jail one of their most accomplished scientists who was apparently duped into believing that a formal invitation by a reputable U.S. clinic and the issuance of a legitimate visa by U.S. consular authorities would protect his safety in America. On the contrary, Soleimani’s predicament sends a strong message of U.S. hostility, not only to the Iranian government but also the Iranian people, who are increasingly suffering under the growing weight of economic sanctions. Caught in the crossfire of U.S.-Iran hostilities, Soleimani is widely viewed in Iran as a hostage of Washington’s confrontational policy, by adding him to the list of Iranian prisoners who may one day be part of a “prisoner exchange” between the two countries. Concerning the latter, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in his recent visit to the U.S., raised the possibility of such a transaction—apparently to no avail, as the Trump administration openly rebuffed him by demanding a unilateral Iranian release of U.S. prisoners in Iran. Indeed, a prudent move on the part of Trump administration would be to unilaterally release professor Soleimani, who is suffering unjustly for following his purely scientific calling.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.