U.S. Angered as Allies Fumble Extraditions of Alleged Iranian Agents

Obama administration officials are expressing anger and frustration over legal technicalities in two friendly European countries—Austria and Great Britain—which are hampering U.S. efforts to obtain the extradition of two suspects accused of smuggling sensitive war materials to Iran.

In Innsbruck, Austria, a court recently released from jail a German citizen, Peter Walaschek, who had pleaded guilty in 1988 in the U.S. to charges of shipping huge quantities of a poison gas ingredient to Iran around the time of the Iran-Iraq War. Walaschek reportedly jumped bail and fled the U.S. while awaiting sentencing, and spent much of the subsequent two decades avoiding U.S. attempts to grab him. In the mid-1990s, he was arrested and held for a time by authorities in Croatia. But the Balkan nation's courts let Walaschek go after finding his extradition would not have complied with Croatian law.

For a time, he avoided extradition to the U.S. simply by living in his native Germany, whose laws bar the extradition of its citizens to countries outside the European Union. According to this Reuters report, police in Austria arrested Walaschek when they learned that he was headed there for a ski trip; he reportedly checked into his hotel using a false Irish passport.

A U.S. national security official told Declassified that the Austrian government, and prosecutors in Innsbruck, appeared eager to help the U.S. pursue Walaschek's extradition, but that their pleas were rejected by a court in Innsbruck. According to Reuters, the court apparently ruled that he should be set free on the grounds that the charges on which the U.S. was seeking Walaschek's extradition was not an offense in Austria at the time he allegedly committed it. According to the wire service, Austrian prosecutors said that the extradition request for Walaschek was still pending and the court's ruling only applied to Walaschek's detention. The U.S. official said that he was not aware of Walaschek's current whereabouts, but expressed irritation at the Austrian court's decision to free him. According to U.S. court documents, an investigation by U.S. Customs in the late 1980s resulted in the seizure of 429 drums containing more than 250,000 pounds of thiodiglycol, a key ingredient in the chemical weapons agent known as "mustard gas," which turned out to be one of at least two shipments of the chemical which Walaschek had arranged for delivery to Iran.

The Obama administration is also concerned about legal hurdles that have strung out—and may continue to delay—American efforts to extradite a former Iranian diplomat from Britain. Since 2006, the U.S. has been seeking to extradite Nosratollah Tajik, Iran's onetime ambassador to Jordan, on charges which arose from an operation staged by Homeland Security investigators, in which he allegedly was caught trying to export night-vision weapons sights to Iran in violation of arms embargoes.

Since his arrest, Tajik, who had moved to Britain as an honorary fellow at Durham University in the northeast of England, had fought extradition through the British courts and immigration system. He eventually exhausted the legal appeals process, a U.K. government official said. The European Court on Human Rights, which has some power to overrule British government or court decisions in immigration or extradition cases, declined to hear Tajik's appeal, the official added.

However, according to the U.K. official, Tajik has now made "representations" to Home Secretary Alan Johnson, Britain's senior internal security minister, in which he argues that his extradition to the U.S. should be blocked on grounds of ill health. This latest appeal has led to speculation in British media that the U.K. government, which has reportedly come under heavy Iranian diplomatic pressure to block Tajik's extradition, may be having second thoughts about sending Tajik stateside. A report in the Northern Echo newspaper goes so far as to suggest that the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown is considering whether Tajik should be let go in response to a pre-Christmas decision by authorities in Tehran to free five British yachtsmen who had accidentally sailed into Iranian waters.

A U.K. official acknowledged to Declassified that Tajik's latest plea against extradition was "under consideration" by Johnson, but offered no indication as to how Johnson might rule. The official added that if Johnson decides to reject Tajik's health plea, then the Iranian would be able to file a new series of appeals in British courts.