Is Iran Playing Games With 'Hostages'?

The government of Iran is seeking access through diplomatic channels to an Iranian who earlier this week was sentenced to five years in a U.S. prison after pleading guilty to trying to acquire sensitive U.S. defense technology. Iran has asked, via its official "interests section" in Pakistan's embassy in Washington, D.C., for its consular representatives to be permitted access to Amir Hossein Ardebili, a 36-year-old Iranian businessman who last year pleaded guilty to charges of violating U.S. arms–control laws by trying to purchase American-made equipment, banned by U.S. sanctions from shipment to Iran, which could be used in Iranian fighter planes and, potentially, missile-guidance systems. Two people close to the case, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive matter, said that the Iranian request to visit Ardebili apparently was received following Ardebili's sentencing in federal court in Wilmington, Del., earlier this week. If, as is likely, an Iranian consular rep is allowed to talk with Ardebili, one of the sources said this will almost certainly occur at the prison in northeastern Pennsylvania where Ardebili has been sent to serve his sentence.

The official Iranian request to talk with Ardebili following his U.S. conviction is Iran's latest move in an increasingly tense confrontation between Washington and Tehran over what each side claims is the unjust detention of a number of each others' citizens. The U.S. has asked Iran to free three American hikers who have been held by Iranian authorities since they accidentally strayed over the Iranian border while hiking in northern Iraq last summer. But Iranian authorities lately have threatened to put the hikers on trial, and in turn have put out word, via media statements and back-channel diplomatic contacts, suggesting that the hikers' fate could be influenced by how the U.S. handles the cases of Ardebili and 10 other Iranians who Tehran claims are either being unjustly held by the U.S. or its allies or have disappeared. U.S. and European officials say that while Tehran's actions are not as blatant as Iranian behavior during the 1979-81 "hostage crisis" with Washington, recent Iranian actions do evoke echoes of 30 years ago. "It's how they think. In their system they can take hostages," said a European official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a subject of diplomatic sensitivity. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, Hillary Clinton's chief spokesman, told NEWSEEK, "There's no equivalence between some innocent hikers and accused or convicted arms dealers."

Politico foreign-affairs reporter Laura Rozen reported earlier this month that Swiss intermediaries had told U.S. officials that, in response to inquiries about the possible release of the American hikers, Iranian authorities had put forward a list of Iranians who Tehran believes are being held by the U.S. Rozen said that last month, Iranian media reported on the creation of some kind of nongovernmental group that was going to sue the U.S. to try to win the release of 11 Iranian citizens who it claimed were inappropriately held by U.S. authorities. This dispatch from the French news agency AFP purportedly names the 11 Iranians. They include Ardebili and a handful of other high-profile missing or arrested Iranians, including Majid Kakavand, an Iranian businessman held by French authorities for possible U.S. extradition in connection with the same kind of Homeland Security "sting" operation that snared Ardebili, and Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian ambassador to Jordan, whose extradition from the U.K. (also on export-control-violation charges prompted by a U.S.-orchestrated sting) the U.S. has been seeking since 2006

Also on the Iranian list, according to the AFP report, are former Iranian deputy defense minister Alireza Askari and Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri. Askari has not been heard from since he disappeared while on a visit to Istanbul three years ago, and while some media reports have alleged that he defected or was somehow captured by a Western power such as the U.S. or Israel, numerous U.S. officials have emphatically denied any knowledge of his fate. Amiri disappeared in June while on the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and Iran's foreign minister claimed last week that he had been "abducted" by the U.S. with Saudi complicity. Two U.S. officials, who also asked for anonymity, denied to NEWSWEEK that Amiri was in the custody or under control of the U.S. government, but they declined to answer whether the U.S. government knew his whereabouts.

A senior U.S. official said that while the Iranians have been publicly complaining about the fates of their citizens, the only Iranian about whom Tehran has made any official approach to the U.S. through diplomatic channels is Ardebili, who U.S. investigators say was part of a network of fairly low-level middlemen whom the Iranian government hired to try to procure U.S. and other Western technology for its military and missile programs, some of which Iran has been banned from acquiring since the 1979-81 hostage-crisis standoff between Tehran and Washington. Ardebili, who lived with his parents in Iran, was arrested in the nation of Georgia after being lured there by undercover agents from ICE, the plainclothes detective bureau of the U.S. Homeland Security Department.

A European government official acknowledged, however, that Iranian authorities have informed contacts in the Swiss government, whose embassy in Tehran represents U.S. interests there, about Iran's interest in the repatriation of the 11 men, although the official said that Tehran had not presented Switzerland with a formal list of names. The official indicated that the Swiss had informally passed on Iranian concerns to the U.S. government.

Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration appears unsympathetic to Iranian-government pleas. There is every indication that the U.S. intends to pursue its current extradition cases against accused technology smugglers like Kakavand and Tajik. When Ardebili was brought in to court for sentencing earlier this week, U.S. marshals laid on a huge security operation, apparently because they had received what they thought was some kind of threat against Ardebili's life—a threat that, according to a person close to the case, was attributed to Iranian authorities, although there are questions as to the credibility of this threat. But Edmund Lyons, Ardebili's defense lawyer, confirmed that U.S. investigators had informed him that the Iranian government had been "raising holy hell" demanding Ardebili's release.

While the U.S. so far has ignored Iranian pressure tactics, other countries have been more receptive to Iranian pleas. As NEWSWEEK reported last year, Iranian complaints to the government of China apparently persuaded authorities in Beijing to order authorities in Hong Kong to release Yousef Boushvash, yet another Iranian technology-purchasing middleman who U.S. investigators caught in a sting. Boushvash vanished after his release from a Hong Kong jail.

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