Shadow War: Connections
The arms dealer’s family had just one contact in the U.S. Was the Iranian in Guantanamo? Was he alive?
BEVERLY HILLS, MARCH 2008
The estimated one million Iranian Americans in L.A. joke that they live in Tehrangeles.
They use a Farsi-edition Yellow Pages and patronize Persian shops along Wilshire Boulevard. They follow Iranian politics, gossip about the CIA station in L.A., and whisper about Tehran's local spy network. The most successful live and work in the Iranian diaspora's financial capital, Beverly Hills.
THE STORY SO FARAs an Iranian arms broker sits in a Philadelphia prison, held secretly in solitary under a fake name, his family frantically searches for him and U.S. agents use data from his laptop to launch other investigations.
HOW THIS SERIES WAS REPORTED
Amir Ardebili's family had just one contact in Los Angeles. But it was a good one.
Ardebili's wife's uncle was a fabulously wealthy Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon. He lived with his new, Vietnamese wife in a mansion that offered panoramic views and a 30-seat theater. The home was so plush that the pop star Pink once shot a video there.
When Ardebili's wife called from Iran, the rich uncle turned to a Beverly Hills lawyer he trusted, Ross Reghabi.
The rich uncle told Reghabi that his nephew Amir had been arrested in Tbilisi, Georgia, and secretly snatched by the Americans. The family in Iran was distraught.
Was he in Guantanamo? Was he even alive?
Reghabi was not a criminal lawyer. He specialized in family and business matters, and taught an advanced accounting class at the University of California, Los Angeles. But he knew enough to assure his friend that the U.S. government did not routinely hold people in secret confinement.
Don't worry, he said. This is America, not Iran. Laws and procedures must be followed. People don't just disappear.
PHILADELPHIA, APRIL 2008
Michael Ronayne, a bald Homeland Security agent with a bodybuilder's physique, pulled his black SUV up to a safe house on the city's western edge.
He slipped inside, gripping a laptop bag, ready for another day testing the patriotism of U.S. arms manufacturers.
Seven months after the Tbilisi sting, Ronayne and colleagues were still reaping a trove of intelligence and evidence from Ardebili's laptop.
With the Iranian secretly locked away in a Philadelphia prison, Ronayne and other agents had assumed his online persona, posing as the arms broker from Shiraz.
The agents had picked up where Ardebili left off, resuming negotiations with 150 U.S. companies - some of whom knew him by his business name, "Alex Dave." The U.S. agents used the Iranian's e-mail accounts and negotiating style, even his broken-English patois. The tech guys made the e-mails appear to come from inside Iran.
Operation Shakespeare, still secret, had broadened into one of Homeland Security's largest investigations.
So far, the U.S. agents had caught a dozen American companies agreeing to sell military or restricted technology. Soon, the number would grow to 20 - companies based in Arizona, Texas, New York, California, Dubai, and Europe, selling stealth technology, advanced radar, and avionics needed to pilot a Predator drone.
These stings relied on a simple lie: that Ardebili was still in Iran, doing deals.
To continue this deception, the agents would have to keep Ardebili out of the public eye, the charges against him sealed.
And with so many cases developing, the agents knew, the Ardebili case would need to stay secret for many more months, perhaps a year.
BEVERLY HILLS, MAY 2008
Reghabi figured that finding the missing nephew would take only a few phone calls or clicks on the Internet.
"Looking back," Reghabi recalled, "I had no idea what I was getting into."
He searched the national court dockets and prison websites. Nothing.
He called Iran's de facto embassy in Washington and got a copy of the two-page Georgian Supreme Court ruling. It included a reference to Massachusetts, a clue.
Reghabi called prosecutors in Boston, but was rebuffed. Can't help you, they said. No such case on file.
He began phoning the larger U.S. Attorney's Offices - New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit. Again nothing. When he tried Boston once more, someone suggested Wilmington. That office gave him the brush-off.
Frustrated, Reghabi peppered the Justice Department with certified letters. The request was so basic, so fundamental, he believed. How could they hold a man in secret, deny him access to a lawyer?
Reghabi wasn't sure what to do next. He considered a lawsuit. But whom would he sue? Where would he file it?
Then, one day in June, he received a mysterious call.
The man refused to identify himself, except to say that he worked for the U.S. government. He seemed to be trying to figure out if Reghabi was an Iranian agent.
Reghabi explained that he was calling on behalf of Ardebili's family in Iran - and that he didn't work for the Islamic Republic and never had.
The answers must have satisfied the caller. A week later, a lawyer from Wilmington, Edmund D. "Dan" Lyons, called and identified himself as Ardebili's court-appointed defense lawyer.
Lyons arranged for Reghabi and Ardebili to speak by phone. It was Ardebili's first conversation in Farsi in six months. The Beverly Hills lawyer promised to visit soon. Please hurry, Ardebili said.
Reghabi called Ardebili's wife in Iran. Your husband is alive, he said, held under a false name in a prison on the East Coast. Reghabi did not add that the charges carried a likely sentence of 10 years.
At the end of the conversation, he threw out a surprise: "If you like, I have arranged with the Americans for you to visit your husband in prison."
Negine Ardebili quickly agreed and turned to logistics. Getting permission to leave Iran and enter the United States isn't easy, she said. "I think it is impossible."
Don't worry, Reghabi said. Arrangements are under way. Get yourself a passport.
WILMINGTON, MAY 2008
"Raise your right hand."
The Iranian did so.
"Do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
Ardebili stood in a sealed courtroom, U.S. District Judge Gregory Sleet presiding, paper covering the courtroom windows. Lyons, his local lawyer, stood beside him.
Ardebili was prepared to plead guilty to the four charges against him - violating the arms embargo, money laundering, unlicensed arms export, and conspiracy.
To fight the charges and go to trial would be suicidal, Lyons had advised. The facts were terrible. Video and e-mail evidence were too strong; Ardebili had acted too eagerly to argue entrapment.
And while a jurisdictional protest might look promising on first glance - the Iranian citizen had committed his U.S. crimes while inside Iran - it wasn't a likely winner. Lyons' research showed that U.S. law generally applies to serious crimes against the United States committed outside its borders. He was surprised to find so many rulings supporting the prosecution. What's more, Ardebili had wired a deposit to a bank in Wilmington, creating jurisdiction in Delaware.
The way Lyons had explained it, Ardebili had two options: Make it easy on everyone and plead guilty - face two to eight years in prison. Put everyone through a trial and lose - face 10 to 15 years. That's how the American system worked.
Sleet led Ardebili through the series of questions every defendant is asked before entering a plea. Do you understand you are giving up your right to trial? Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty? Are you pleading guilty of your own free will?
To each question, Ardebili answered yes.
The formal guilty plea that followed felt anticlimactic.
But as Ardebili left the courtroom, he was already regretting what he'd just done.
SHIRAZ, IRAN, NOVEMBER 2008
To obtain a passport, the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran require a wife to receive a husband's permission.
For Negine Ardebili, this was impossible.
She also faced the daunting challenge of obtaining a U.S. visa.
Details of what happened next are murky, but by mid-November, Negine was flying from Tehran to Europe, on to Philadelphia, and from there to Los Angeles.
She spent her first week outside Iran in a disorienting cocoon of jumbo jets and Marriott hotel rooms, guarded by large U.S. agents in polo shirts, unfailingly polite, with pistols on their hips.
Negine's rich uncle met her at Los Angeles International Airport and drove her directly to Beverly Hills.
TEHRAN, NOVEMBER 2008
The Beverly Hills lawyer approached the Iranian Foreign Ministry with a sheaf of legal documents, uncertain how he'd be received.
Like a lot of Iranian Americans his age, Reghabi had left Iran in the mid-1970s to attend college in the United States, intending to return after graduation. In 1979, his senior year, Shah Reza Pahlavi fell and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power. Reghabi decided to remain in California. He married, raised a family, became a U.S. citizen, and built a law practice catering to Iranian Americans.
He'd returned to Tehran a dozen times, mostly to visit his elderly mother. He treaded carefully, always respectful of the Iranian authorities, keenly aware that because Iran did not recognize his dual citizenship, he could encounter unexpected legal problems.
An assistant foreign minister greeted Reghabi with businesslike detachment.
Reghabi told the minister that Ardebili wanted to rescind his guilty plea and go to trial. "The minister asked if we could win," he recalled.
Perhaps, Reghabi replied. Not based on the evidence - the video and e-mail were too damning. But if the case were argued on the fairness of the law, he'd have a shot at winning on appeal.
Reghabi explained that he disagreed with the court-appointed lawyer's assessment. He believed Ardebili had a good case. What right did the United States have to charge an Iranian for acts committed inside Iran? "This kind of case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court," Reghabi told the minister.
The minister asked how much the defense might cost.
"$400,000 to $500,000."
The minister didn't respond. Come back in a few days, he said.
"At the next meeting," Reghabi recalled, the minister said "the government is not in a position to spend that kind of money."
Reghabi pressed. If Iran wouldn't back Ardebili's legal challenge, then why not apply political pressure by making the case public, perhaps taking it to the U.N? At a minimum, this would anger the Americans, who were trying to keep the arrest secret.
The minister said he'd think about it.
PHILADELPHIA, DEC. 22, 2008
Negine Ardebili stood in the teeming visitors' room inside the Federal Detention Center on Arch Street, surrounded by other inmates' relatives.
These people looked nothing like her uncle's friends in Beverly Hills. "Those families were very scary, everyone staring at me," she recalled. "It felt like the worst day of my life."
Negine was grateful that Reghabi had escorted her from Los Angeles. After an hour's wait, they rode the elevator to the solitary unit on the eighth floor.
A guard guided Negine into a closet of a room, alone. There was a phone by a Plexiglas window that looked into a similar empty room. The walls were concrete, the air stale. She shivered. She had not seen her husband in more than a year.
Ten minutes later, the door to the other room opened.
Amir Ardebili took a seat by the window in front of her. He looked gaunt and wore a baggy green jumpsuit over a bright-orange shirt. He'd grown a short beard. His eyes looked distant, angry.
He picked up the phone.
She didn't know what to say.
"I was lost," she recalled. "I didn't want him to see me cry. I couldn't speak. I thought he looked strange. It was not my country."
Amir Ardebili was raging inside, but tried not to show it. He was happy to see her, but guarded, sure that with her visit, the Americans were manipulating him.
"For Amir, it had to be part of a conspiracy," Reghabi recalled. "He could not conceive that the visit was merely a humanitarian gesture by the Americans."
Ardebili and his wife spoke in Farsi. The connection was poor, the sound muffled.
He told her he would be OK. He warned that the guards would be listening. She said she didn't care, she was just happy to see him. He was alive.
After an hour together, he returned to solitary. She flew back to Beverly Hills.
PHILADELPHIA, SPRING 2009
The agents closely monitored Ardebili's few visits with his wife. But any sympathy the agents might have developed melted when they resumed sifting through his laptop.
By now, the agents had reviewed 101,000 documents - detailed evidence of Iran's covert effort to smuggle U.S. military technology, to buy weapons and systems for use against American soldiers and pilots.
The data showed that Ardebili supplied the Iranian military with night-vision goggles, sonar, radar, Kevlar vests.
Some things Ardebili purchased had dual uses, civilian and military. He bought, for instance, microchip components designed for such benign things as a remote-control car-lock system. But U.S. officials say this very brand of microchip - made in Arizona and known by its part number, PIC16F84A - has been traced to IEDs used against U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The laptop data didn't prove why Ardebili bought the components, but it offered leads the agents used to launch more than 100 investigations of U.S. and Iranian companies. And by mid-2009, those clues and evidence had triggered undercover operations on three continents.
The most audacious one would take the agents from Philadelphia to Asia.
Contact staff writer John Shiffman
at 301-320-6655 or email@example.com.
SUNDAY: GOING PUBLIC