WILMINGTON - Amid heavy security at the federal courthouse, an Iranian engineer who tried to buy radar and avionics technology from U.S. undercover agents in Eastern Europe was sentenced yesterday to five years in prison.
Amir Hossein Ardebili, 35, who worked as a procurement agent for the Iranian military from his hometown in Sharaz, Iran, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, money laundering, and violating munitions export laws and the American embargo that prohibits most trade with Iran.
He was arrested in Tbilisi, Georgia, in October 2007 and extradited to the United States in January 2008. He pleaded guilty in Wilmington in May 2008, but the case was kept secret until this month, when his plea was unsealed.
The case had remained sealed, federal officials said, so that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from Philadelphia could quietly pursue leads gleaned from Ardebili's laptop, which was seized after his arrest. Charges in related cases are possible, officials said.
In court yesterday, Ardebili's defense lawyer, Edmund Lyons, portrayed his client as "a very small fish" and sought a sentence of time served. "He is a man in many ways caught in a struggle between two nations . . . carrying out the wishes of his government," Lyons said.
Ardebili read a long statement aloud, crying often - once so much that he needed to take a short break. He admitted that he broke U.S. law, but begged the judge to consider that he did so in Iran, where his actions were not illegal.
"I don't want to minimize the things I did," Ardebili said. "I'm sorry and I'm looking for your mercy. I wanted only to feed my family, and I never wanted to hurt anyone."
The prosecutor, David Hall, said there probably were scores of men like Ardebili in Iran, trying to buy military gear from unscrupulous U.S. arms manufacturers. Their motive may be profit, Hall said, but it puts American soldiers, sailors, and pilots at risk.
"Mr. Ardebili is not a crazed ideologue, he's not a terrorist," Hall said. "He's not trying to destroy Western civilization, but he is a sophisticated businessman . . . . He's not the one with a gun in his hand, but he's the one putting the gun in someone else's hand."
U.S. District Judge Gregory M. Sleet said Ardebili "presents somewhat of a paradox" - a man motivated by greed, not politics, and who "posed a threat to the national security of the United States" but now appears genuinely remorseful.
"The tears you shed today were not fake," the judge said.
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 - roughly half the recommended range - was based in part on what he described as "additional information."
Sleet gave Ardebili five years, but with credit for time served and time off for good behavior, officials said, he could be released from prison by late 2011.
Security was unusually tight - two city blocks were closed to traffic, and city police patrolled the streets and deployed an armored vehicle. The U.S. marshal for Delaware, David W. Thomas, said the security was the most stringent there since 2002.
"There has been some information that the defendant's life is in danger," Thomas said, though he declined to state the nature of the threat. "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.
In snippets from a sting video released by prosecutors, Ardebili told undercover ICE agents that the Iranian military sought to buy the gear because "they think the war is coming" against the United States.
In court yesterday, Lyons argued that Ardebili's comments in 2007 were taken out of context. Iran, he said, feared a U.S. invasion.
Iran's leaders have criticized Ardebili's arrest, alleging that he was illegally entrapped into participating in the deal, according to news accounts from Tehran.
The Tehran Times wrote, "Iran has strongly denounced the trial," and described the case as a "politically motivated move, which shows U.S. contempt for international law."
During a news conference last week, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called on the United States to release Ardebili. According to Iranian state television, Mottaki said the guilty plea demonstrated Ardebili's "unsuitable psychological situation."
Lyons said that while Ardebili has suffered from depression, in part from being in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison, the foreign minister's characterization was inaccurate. Lyons said the Iranian government had not contacted him about his client.
No one representing the Iranian government was in the courtroom yesterday.