In Evin prison in northwest Tehran, three Americans languish while awaiting trial on espionage charges after their hiking trip along the Iran-Iraq border ended in a well-publicized arrest.
Half a world away, in a federal prison in northern Minnesota, an Iranian arms dealer lives in a similar cell. He never went to trial but instead pleaded guilty in December to charges he tried to procure missile and radar parts, among other things, for the Islamic Republic. His case has been less publicized but is no less bizarre.
The two cases are intertwined, say U.S. intelligence and Homeland Security officials, who agreed to discuss the case on condition of anonymity. If the Iranian government does eventually yield to mounting international pressure to free the three Americans — Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27 — it may do so only to get its hands on the imprisoned Amir Hossein Ardebili, 36, they say. (The mothers of the three hikers have been granted visas and are hopeful that they will be able to visit with the trio in prison this week in Tehran.)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has suggested an exchange, naming 11 Iranians believed to be in U.S. custody. But it is Ardebili (pronounced AR-deh-BELL-ee) that the Iranians most want, the officials say.
“He’s the prize,” said one Homeland Security official.
So far, the U.S. has rejected a possible exchange.
“There really is no equivalence at all,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said recently of the American hikers and the 11 Iranians — not all of whom are acknowledged as being in U.S. The Americans, he stated, are not spies, while a number of the Iranians have admitted to crimes, including Ardebili.
Why Tehran sees Ardebili as the “prize” remains a mystery. The other Iranians include a scientist who tried to buy nuclear technology and another accused of smuggling some of the same materiel that Ardebili tried to procure back to Tehran.
“It could be that he is a bigger deal than we think he is,” said one law enforcement official who worked the case. “Or it’s just a big deal to them that he was lured out of Iran. Normally this stuff goes through Dubai, but when you catch a guy the way we did, it completely exposes them and exposes their network.”
Ardebili’s lawyer, Edmund “Dan” Lyons of Wilmington, Del., disagrees with the officials’ assessment of his client’s importance.
“He’s a little guy in all of this, one of a number of people the Iranian government has tasked" with procuring arms.
Iranian officials declined to comment on Ardebili's case.
Ardebili also isn’t talking, having declined media requests for interviews. But during a secretly recorded meeting with U.S. Customs agents posing as renegade American arms dealers, he spoke of Iran’s rationale in upgrading all its military aircraft.
“If the United States come to war,” he said matter-of-factly during the meeting in a hotel room in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. “The government of Iran could defend (itself). They think war is coming.”
The Ardebili case shows how extensively the Iranians are trolling the world’s arms markets — and the lengths the U.S. is going to in order to stop them. But it’s a tale about far more than the arcane business of acquiring restricted military equipment.
As laid out by U.S. officials, it involves cloak-and-dagger operations on three continents, the rare capture of an arms dealer’s laptop, secret negotiations between the U.S. and the Republic of Georgia, an accusation that Iranian operatives tried to poison Ardebili to stop him from talking, and a successful extrication of Ardebili’s wife from Iran via a friendly embassy in Tehran.
The story dates to late 2004, when Ardebili fell into a trap laid by Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.
The then 30-year-old engineer from Shiraz, Iran, contacted an arms-dealing firm that was actually a Customs sting operation in Philadelphia. He had already sent thousands of solicitations to U.S. companies, requesting quotes on tens of thousands of components — many if not most restricted for export to Iran. He later admitted to undercover Customs agents that the Iranian government was his only customer.
For the next two years, working from a list provided by the official Iranian Electronics Institute, he asked for missile and radar equipment, specifically components for use in missile gyroscopes and for phased-array anti-missile radar that Iran is trying to develop. He also sought on-board computers for the F-4 fighter bombers that Iran purchased while under the rule of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and that the Iranian Air Force still uses. He used email accounts, Yahoo Messenger and the telephone.
“I assure you,” Ardebili told undercover agents in one taped conversation, “this is a very urgent inquiry because … (of) the F-4.”
At that point, the U.S. decided to move on Ardebili. Believing he wasn’t likely to go to a European city to discuss arms deals, the Customs agents and the U.S. Justice Department decided to try luring him to Georgia, just a short plane ride for Ardebili. But first, they had to get Georgian officials to agree to the operation, since the U.S. and Georgia have no extradition treaty.
“The Georgians supported us with surveillance and supplied officers posing as bodyguards for our undercover agent,” said one U.S. official, referring to a Customs agent code-named “Darius.” “His legend (cover story) was that one of our guys had a warehouse in Georgia. ‘So I want to meet you there.’”
On Oct. 1 and 2, 2007, Ardebili met with U.S. undercover officers led by Darius at the Hotel Old Tbilisi overlooking the Mt’k’vari river. The discussions centered on closing a deal on the F-4 computers and the phase shifters needed for the anti-missile radar.
That meeting, the U.S. officials say, set in motion a series of events that would be at home in a script for “24.”
The Iranian didn’t suspect he was meeting with U.S. undercover agents — in full view of hidden cameras. He freely discussed the Iranians’ needs, his business and the state of the Iranian military. He admitted that even when the Iranian institute didn’t tell him its rationale for an acquisition, he researched it.
He hemmed and hawed about the down payment he needed to wire to a bank in Wilmington, Del., first agreeing to $10,000 and then, after hours of discussion, bargaining his “clients” down to $6,000 and finally $3,000.
Finally on the afternoon of the second day, the undercover team felt they had enough evidence to prosecute Ardebili and asked the Georgians to pick him up.
“He was arrested by Georgian authorities, not us,” said a U.S. law enforcement official. “He was deflated and dismayed. He was sent to a prison in Georgia on a provisional arrest warrant based on U.S. smuggling statutes.”
Ardebili’s father, who had traveled with his son to Tbilisi, was permitted to return to Iran, where he informed authorities of his son’s arrest.
That was when the U.S. officials realized Ardebili’s value to the Iranians — dead or alive.
According to multiple U.S. officials and his lawyer, the Iranians strongly protested the arrest. There were several meetings between Ardebili and Iranian officials in the Georgian prison, and a meeting about the case at the ambassadorial level. Iran’s foreign minister even threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to Georgia if Ardebili wasn’t freed, according to the U.S. officials.
Then, during one of the prison meetings, the Iranians tried to kill Ardebili, according to one U.S. law enforcement official’s account, which was confirmed in part by two other officials familiar with the case.
According to the U.S. official, an Iranian official visiting the arms dealer outlined an elaborate plot to free him, giving him a pill that he said would make Ardebili so ill that he would have to be taken to a nearby hospital. En route, the Iranian promised, an Iranian security team would intercept the ambulance, rescue him and then take him back to Iran overland.
Ardebili was suspicious, however, and later gave the pill to his jailers, the U.S. official said. Later, they told him that it had contained a fatal dose of poison.
“He certainly didn’t know what to believe at that point,” said the law enforcement official. “He didn’t know who to trust. Was it now in his best interest to go back to Iran? Probably not.”
Finally, in January 2008, after a public hearing covered by the Georgian press, Ardebili was extradited from Tbilisi to Delaware to stand trial.
“He had an initial appearance before the federal judge in Wilmington sealed to keep his whereabouts secret,” said a U.S. official involved in the Tiblisi operation.
Ardebili feared he was going to be sent to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, and waterboarded, said Lyons, who became his court-appointed lawyer in Delaware. Instead, Ardebili was placed in the “Special Housing Unit” of the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia and given a new identity, so that anyone trying to find him using the federal prison locator system would come up empty.
Later, Ardebili would claim the confinement — 23 hours a day of solitary, with no access to the general population — was meant to break him. His only human contact was frequent interrogations, he said.
Much of the evidence against him came from his laptop.
“We got six years of business data, files … emails, RFQ’s (requests for price quotes), contacts, spreadsheets on Iranian requirements … just a huge amount of information,” said a U.S. official.
Investigators also were receiving information from CIA intelligence officers, who had been given copies of the laptop’s hard drive within days of its arrival in the U.S.
Ardebili was alternatively combative and cooperative during questioning, so his interrogators allowed him to talk by phone to his mother and his young wife to try to encourage him to talk. When he expressed concern that his wife had been visited by Iranian security, the agents had an idea that they thought would win him over — bringing her to the U.S.
But how could they spirit her out of Iran, with the government already keeping an eye on her?
“In December ‘08, she did leave Iran with some element of subterfuge,” said another U.S. official familiar with the case. “We approached her through an intermediary. She readily agreed to come through Europe, then on to the U.S.”
The subterfuge, according to a second U.S. official and a source close to Ardebili’s family, involved her traveling from her home city of Shiraz to a friendly European embassy in Tehran, where she was outfitted with a U.S.-provided disguise and false identification and then hustled onto a plane at Imam Khomeini International Airport bound for the European country.
“He didn’t know she was on her way. His actual concern was her safety,” said the first official. The two were permitted a visit and then she traveled on to California, where she is living with relatives “under a special dispensation from the government,” according to the family source. She recently received a temporary work permit.
Ardebili became more cooperative, and U.S. authorities began pumping him for more information and using what he provided to go after U.S. companies that had been assisting him in trying to procure prohibited weapons and technology components.
"We adopted his identity and contacted people in the U.S. based on the laptop," said the law enforcement official. "He had often used aliases. So we used the same aliases. ... we brought some charges ... and more are on the way.”
In the only case completed so far, an Arizona-based associate of Ardebili’s, James Larrison, pleaded guilty to attempting to send electronics to Ardebili without the required authorization from the Treasury Department.
Finally, late last year, the U.S. officials felt that they had exhausted Ardebili’s value as a source and moved to tie up the case against him.
Ardebili agreed to plead guilty in federal court, anticipating that he would be sentenced to time served — essentially two years — in prison as a result of his cooperation, according to Lyons, his lawyer. But prosecutors asked for seven years.
After pleading guilty, Ardebili pleaded for leniency at a sentencing hearing on Dec. 17, telling the judge that he was a small cog in Iran’s arms buying machinery and had exaggerated his importance to the undercover agents. He cried as he described the conditions he had been subjected to in the Philadelphia lock-up.
He even suggested the judge could strike a blow for better Iran-U.S. relations. “Turn on your light and wisdom,” he asked U.S. District Judge Gregory M. Sleet. “May you bring the real good change for two great nations or even the world.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall argued that Ardebili was not deserving of the court’s mercy.
“He is about invoices and spreadsheets, but what he is doing is very serious,” he said. “He might not be the one with the gun in his hand, but he is the one who put the gun in somebody else’s hand.”
The judge found a middle road, sentencing Ardebili to five years, with credit for time served. The reduction from the federal sentencing guideline of seven to eight years apparently was related to his cooperation with the investigation.
Lyons claims his client’s poor treatment continues, saying Ardebili has been moved five times since December before landing at the federal penitentiary in Rochester, Minn.. Purportedly the moves are for the sake of security, but Lyons doesn’t think the Iranians are interested enough in him to try anything in the U.S.
Lyons said the Iranian Interest Section in Washington has called once to inquire about the case, but did not requested visitation. Ardebili, he said, feels abandoned.
“The question is whether he was big guy or a little guy,” said Lyons. “It came out that Iranians are hurting for key pieces of equipment. They send a hundred of these guys out and turn them loose on the Internet. They get caught.”
Ardebili, he said, is no longer cooperating and won’t talk to him when he calls. When he is released from prison, as early as October 2012, he will face a decision on whether to go back to Iran.
Lyons thinks he’s likely to return to his homeland despite the alleged assassination attempt, rather than applying for asylum in the U.S.
“He sees the United States as the Great Satan,” he said.