The Obama administration confirmed late Sunday it had delayed the imposition of new ballistic missile sanctions on Iran to ensure the Islamic Republic released five imprisoned Americans under a secret agreement reached on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations, according to senior administration officials.
The officials confirmed that "secret" talks between U.S. and Iranian officials had been taking place for the past 14 months.
In exchange for the release of the five Americans—including a Washington Post reporter and Christian pastor—the Obama administration pardoned or dropped charges on 21 Iranians convicted of violating U.S. sanctions, including seven who had been detained in the United States, according to a State Department official who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon on background.
Iran, however, said that the number of those "privileged by the deal" stands at 28, though it did not provide evidence to back this claim.
The administration decided earlier this month to delay the implementation of new sanctions on Iran as a result of its repeated test-firing of ballistic missiles, which violated United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting such activity.
The delay, which came hours after the administration announced the new sanctions to Congress, sparked outrage on Capitol Hill and led to accusations that the White House was capitulating to Iranian demands.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking only on background, confirmed that the sanctions were delayed to preserve the sensitive negotiations over the U.S. prisoners.
"With respect to the [sanctions] designations, yes … but I think it’s obviously fair to say that the key issue for us was we had these three different tracks going on," the official told reporters on Sunday. "The most sensitive one was the one that pertained to our Americans whose release we were seeking. And we did not want to complicate what was a very sensitive and delicate effort to bring Americans home with that action."
The administration decided to delay the sanctions not because of Iranian complaints, but because of "this sensitivity around making sure we’re not compromising our efforts to get the Americans out," the official said.
Iranian officials further confirmed that they had threatened to walk away from prisoner talks if new sanctions were implemented.
Following the release of the Americans this weekend, the administration designated 11 Iranian entities and individuals for their role in the country’s ballistic missile program.
Iran’s defense minister dismissed the sanctions Monday and vowed that the country would continue to enhance its ballistic missile program.
"Attempts to impose new sanctions under the pretext of irrelevant excuses show the United States' continued hostile policies and hatred towards the Iranian nation and its useless attempts to weaken Iran's defense power, which are not helpful to regional security, stability and tranquility," Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan was quoted as saying.
Additionally, Iran unveiled advanced nuclear centrifuges capable of enriching uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon, faster than the country’s previous models.
Those Iranians pardoned in exchange for the release of the five U.S. prisoners include major sanctions offenders accused of providing Tehran with money and technology to illegally fuel its nuclear research.
While the Obama administration acknowledged the pardon of 21 Iranians, the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry announced on Monday that a total of 28 Iranian were freed or pardoned under the deal.
"An overall number of 28 Iranians were freed or were relieved of judicial restrictions within the framework of the agreement," Hossein Jaberi, the foreign ministry spokesman, was quoted as telling reporters Monday.
Six of the Iranians confirmed to have been pardoned have dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship, and two plan to stay remain in America, according to ABC News, which outlined the backgrounds of the pardoned individuals.
Nader Modanlo, who has U.S. citizenship, had been handed an eight-year prison sentence for allegedly helping Iran launch its first satellite, according to ABC. Iran’s space program has long been seen as a cover for its efforts to develop advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
Khosrow Afghahi who co-owns power companies in the United States and Iran, was pardoned as part of the swap after being convicted of providing illegally technology to Tehran.
Bahram Mechanic, also a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, was indicted last year for allegedly funneling "millions of dollars in U.S. technology to Iran," according to ABC. This technology could be applied to Iran’s "military systems, including surface-air and cruise missiles," the report states.
Tooraj Faridi, a business partner of Afghahi, also stood accused of giving illegal technology to Iran. Faridi plans to continue living in Houston, Texas, according to his lawyer, who spoke to ABC.
Arash Ghahraman was pardoned over the weekend after being sentenced to more than six years in prison as a result of his effort to purchase military and maritime equipment on Iran’s behalf.
Nima Golestaneh, who had pled guilty to hacking U.S. defense contractors, was pardoned after being extradited from Turkey to America last year.
Ali Saboonchi was convicted in a U.S. court in 2014 of violating the Iran Trade Embargo by attempting to export industrial products to Iran. Saboonchi’s release "shows that he poses no danger to the American people," his lawyer told ABC.