Under heavy security, an Iranian engineer targeted by Philadelphia-based U.S. Homeland Security agents during an undercover sting in Eastern Europe was sentenced to five years in prison today for trying to buy radar and avionics technology for the Iranian military.
Amir Hossein Ardebili of Sharaz, Iraq had pleaded guilty in federal court in Wilmington to conspiracy, money laundering, munitions export laws and violating the American arms embargo that prohibits most trade with Iran.
Ardebili's arrest in Tbilisi, Georgia in October 2007, his extradition to the United States in January 2008 and his guilty plea in Wilmington in May 2008 were kept secret until early this month. The case remained sealed, U.S. officials said, so that U.S. agents could quietly pursue leads gleaned from Ardebili's laptop computer, which was seized following his arrest in Tbilisi.
Before the sentence was imposed today, Ardebili read a long statement aloud in court, crying often – once so hard that he needed to take a break. He admitted that he broke American law, but begged the judge to consider that he did so in Iran, where his actions where not illegal.
"I don't want to minimize the things I did," said Ardebili, 35. "I'm sorry and I'm looking for your mercy."
U.S. District Court Judge Gregory M. Sleet said that Ardebili "presents somewhat of a paradox" – "motivated by profit and you might say greed" to obtain weapons that may "pose a threat to the national security of the United States."
And yet, Sleet added, Ardebili has since shown genuine remorse, and the tears you shed today were not fake."
Portions of the sentencing hearing were sealed, and afterward U.S. Attorney David Weiss said he could not disclose the subject of the closed hearing. In open court the judge appeared to allude to the closed session, when he said his sentence was based in part on "additional information."
The advisory federal sentencing guidelines called for twelve to fourteen years.
Ardebili was sentenced under high security at the federal courthouse in Wilmington – two city blocks were closed to traffic. The U.S. Marshal for Delaware, David W. Thomas, said the security, which included an armored car and extra city police, was the most stringent here since 2002.
"There has been some information that the defendant's life is in danger," Thomas said. "And also obviously this is a case of national security."
In his plea, Ardebili admitted that he tried to buy 1,000 state-of-the-art radar shifters, 10 gyro chip sensors used in advanced aircraft applications, and a digital air computer for an F-4 aircraft, officials said.
According to snippets from a sting video released by prosecutors, Ardebili told undercover U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement agents that the Iranian military sought to buy the military gear because "they think the war is coming" against the United Strates.
In calling for a significant prison sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall argued that Ardebili's efforts to obtain military gear posed a significant threat to U.S. national security.
Ardebili's lawyer, Edmund D. Lyons, described the Iranian as a minor player who simply passed along orders from the Iranian military. Lyons asked Sleet to sentence Ardebili to time served, or a little more than two years.
"The idea that this guy was some sort of big wheel is ridiculous," Lyons said outside the courtroom. "He had trouble coming up with the down payment."
Iran leaders have criticized the Ardebili arrest, alleging that he was illegally entrapped into participating in the deal for the radar, sensors and fighter-jet computer, according to news accounts from Tehran.
The English-language Tehran Times wrote: "Iran has strongly denounced the trial," and the newspaper described the case as a "politically motivated move, which shows U.S. contempt for international law."
During a press conference last week, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called on the United States to release Ardebili. According to Iranian state television, Mottaki said that the guilty plea demonstrates Ardebili's "unsuitable psychological situation."
"We do not see any reliable evidence for the allegations made against Ardebili," Mottaki said.