WASHINGTON (AP) — Amir Sairafi was an Iranian trader doing business in Dubai, the free-wheeling Middle East commerce hub. When he flew to Germany to take his oral exams for his master's degree, he ran into the U.S. crackdown on illicit trade with Iran.
The unusual U.S. criminal case against Sairafi has put a face on the international campaign to stop Iran from trying to build a nuclear bomb.
Sairafi was arrested and deported to the U.S., where he pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy, money laundering and violating the 1995 Iran trade embargo. He is now serving more than three years in a prison unit in Indiana where many of the other inmates have been convicted on terror-related charges.
U.S. officials hailed his arrest in January 2010 as a blow to Iran's nuclear smuggling networks, which the West says has supplied critical equipment to that country's nuclear programs. Just this week, a U.N. watchdog agency released a report that accused Iran of conducting research specific to the development of nuclear weapons.
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks Iran's nuclear programs, describes Sairafi as a core member of the smuggling networks and the kind of big fish rarely caught in the U.S. net.
Sairafi told The Associated Press in emails from prison that he has no connection to the Iran's government or its military. Despite U.S. claims outside the courtroom, he said he was never accused of trading in nuclear-related technology.
He pleaded guilty in November 2010. In March, he was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.
Sairafi contended that the U.S. has used his case to intimidate merchants in the Middle East from trading with Iran.
"I believe (the) U.S. wanted to test a new strategy to arrest a non-American citizen outside U.S. borders and bring him in their soil and impose their jurisdiction on him. The U.S. tried to ... show that doing business with Iran has high suffering and is costly," Sairafi wrote the AP.
His case offers a glimpse into how the Obama administration has cracked down on Iran's nuclear efforts, using the embargo and sanctions in lieu of military action. It also shows the difficulty in piercing the elaborate veil of secrecy that the U.S. says Tehran weaves around its nuclear efforts.
Investigators must trace transactions through unwitting legitimate businesses, complicit middlemen and front companies that Iran's Revolutionary Guard uses to evade the U.S. embargo and U.N. penalties, said Matthew Levitt, former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department.
It's even harder to build a criminal case, Levitt said. Despite a sharp rise in the number of prosecutions and a "whole bunch" of cases under investigation, he said, "the number of cases is still relatively small in regards to the size of the problem."
U.S. officials declined to explain why, in public statements, they accused Sairafi of helping supply Iran's nuclear programs, but did not do so in court.
It can be difficult to show that exports were intended for weapons without cooperation from Iran.
The AP asked the FBI for evidence of claims on its website that Sairafi's case involved "the procurement of U.S. export-controlled equipment intended for Iran's nuclear weapons program." Days later, the FBI deleted the material from its site and said older case summaries are sometimes removed to make room for new ones.
"These cases don't come around that often," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "They don't get a lot of them, they don't rush into them, and when they get a guy they're going to come down like a ton of bricks."
German authorities detained Sairafi, 42, in January 2010 at the Frankfurt airport on his way to the University of Wurzburg, where he was enrolled for a master's degree in business course.
After being held in Germany for just over eight months, Sairafi said, he was told he was returning to Iran. Instead, he was handed over to U.S. marshals, who flew him to Los Angeles to face trial. It was his first visit to the United States.
"I was kidnapped, and I feel I am a victim of political disputes between two countries," Sairafi said. The indictment accused Sairafi of working for nearly five years with businessmen Jirair Avanessian in Los Angeles and Farhad Masoumian in Tehran, forwarding more than a dozen shipments worth tens of thousands of dollars' from the U.S. to Iran. All were charged with falsifying shipping documents in order to hide the ultimate destination of the devices. Avanessian was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in July. Masoumian remains at large.
Sairafi is one of 40 prisoners in the Communications Management Unit at the prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where inmates are under 24-hour video and audio surveillance and their communications with the outside world are strictly limited so they can be monitored.
Others inmates include John Walker Lindh, who was captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan in 2001 and is serving 20 years, and Shukri Abu Baker, co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation, serving 65 years for providing millions in aid to schools and welfare programs run by the Palestinian terror group Hamas.
Sairafi denied any knowledge that the vacuum pumps and parts he shipped to Tehran were intended for Iran's nuclear program. "Vacuum parts have a wide range of applications and I do not know what they were intended for." He added: "It is not in me to do anything that will contribute to the disruption of world peace."
Sairafi's lawyer, Matthew David Kohn, said his client has been questioned in prison by the FBI about "nuclear matters," which he said Sairafi knows nothing about. Kohn noted that a prosecutor admitted at sentencing she had no evidence he had knowingly shipped nuclear components.
"Is there evidence or even an argument that these vacuum pumps were related to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons or materials?" the judge asked, according to the hearing transcript. The prosecutor shook her head.
A retired International Atomic Energy Agency inspector, Olli Heinonen, said some of the equipment listed in the indictment would have been useful in research on advanced centrifuge design as well as laser uranium enrichment technology — a much faster and cheaper way to produce reactor or bomb-grade fuel than gas centrifuges.