TOKYO, SUMMER 2009
At the airport bar, three U.S. Homeland Security agents from Philadelphia celebrated over sushi.
So far, the covert Asian leg of Operation Shakespeare appeared to be a roaring success. In a few months, they would know if their latest gambit would pay off.
They toasted the prosecutor traveling with them, David Hall of Wilmington.
Nearly two years after they'd lured an Iranian arms broker named Amir Ardebili to the Republic of Georgia, the U.S. team was still exploiting a trove of evidence from his laptop, conducting stings on three continents.
A dozen U.S. companies and Iranian brokers stood in the cross-hairs, suspected of violating the U.S. embargo designed to keep weapons and military technology from falling into enemy hands.
To conduct these investigations, the U.S. agents and prosecutor had kept secret Ardebili's 2007 arrest in Georgia and his covert transfer to the United States. For 18 months, they'd held the Iranian under a fake name in a Philadelphia prison.
Ardebili had pleaded guilty in a sealed courtroom, but the law required that his sentencing take place in open court - and that couldn't happen until the agents finished their Asian sting.
Now, that appeared imminent.
PHILADELPHIA, JULY 2009
Approaching his 18th month of solitary confinement, Amir Ardebili fought loneliness and boredom, but he also feared sleep.
Sleep brought a recurring nightmare: An earthquake levels Shiraz, his hometown. "I hear my mother's voice from under destroyed buildings, calling me, Amir, Amir."
Floodwaters rise and he flees. "I still see the huge river, which is coming from the top of the mountain."
Ardebili's dreams were but one sign of his crumbling mental and physical state.
His few visitors witnessed his deterioration. "I'd ask him how he was holding up, and he'd say, 'My brain is boiling,' " his Wilmington lawyer, Edmund D. "Dan" Lyons, recalled. "And I said to the government, 'Guys, you've got to get him out. He's going insane.' "
Ross Reghabi, his Beverly Hills defense lawyer, said Ardebili spoke of "evil spirits" haunting him at night.
"I begged the agents," he recalled. "I said, 'I'm telling you, this guy is losing his mind.' "
The government made some adjustments, easing the anxiety.
Still, Ardebili soon developed severe dental problems, creating searing pain. His dental hygiene had never been good, but now eight teeth were in full decay, several infected. A prison dentist told Ardebili two teeth had to be pulled. Suspicious, Ardebili refused.
In October, after 20 months in isolation, doctors prescribed antidepressants for the first time. Still, physical symptoms of mental decay worsened. A nasty, scaling rash broke out over both hands. He found it hard to eat. He hyperventilated.
"Inmate . . . more depressed," the prison doctor wrote on Nov. 18. "Intermittent palpitations, cannot get a full breath, feels that he must force to breathe deeply, numbness to face and hands. . . ."
The silence from the Asian contact worried prosecutor Hall, but it did not surprise him.
International undercover counterproliferation cases could be confounding. After months, even years, of good work, stings could come tantalizingly close to completion, and then, without explanation, a source, an informant, or a target would simply disappear.
It had been months since the Tokyo celebration, when Hall and the agents were confident they stood on the cusp of nailing a major arms smuggler. Now, the contact had vanished, refusing - or unable - to respond to e-mail.
Ominously, the Iranians were starting to break their silence about Ardebili. To what end, Hall couldn't be sure. But the public references, though mysterious and fleeting, were becoming more frequent, offered as a counter to the Western argument that Iran was a rogue nation lying about its nuclear ambitions.
The United States, Iranian officials insisted, was the real rogue nation - illegally kidnapping Iranians and secretly hauling them to America. Iran lodged a confidential U.N. protest over Ardebili and others; sketchy Middle Eastern news reports portrayed him as a "nuclear scientist."
Hall couldn't be sure what the Iranians were up to or why his Asian contact had vanished. But he knew what it meant: Keeping Ardebili's detention secret was no longer necessary.
WILMINGTON, DEC. 2, 2009
The news conference was carried live on cable - breaking news.
"Earlier today," said U.S. Attorney David Weiss of Delaware, "a judge unsealed documents related to Amir Hossein Ardebili, an Iranian national whose business was dedicated to the acquisition of military equipment for his sole customer, the government of Iran. ..."
Weiss laid out the charges: violating the arms embargo, smuggling, conspiracy, money laundering. He cited the Tbilisi sting, the covert extradition, and the secret guilty plea. He kept details vague.
John Morton, U.S. Homeland Security's assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), had come up from Washington for the announcement. "There's no question there's an orchestrated effort by Iran to acquire weapons. Unfortunately, there's a whole network of these guys out there. ..."
Ed Bradley, special agent in charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, followed. "This poses a significant threat to national security," he said, putting "our most sensitive technology" in the hands of enemy soldiers fighting U.S. troops.
To drive home the Iran threat, officials released short video excerpts from the Tbilisi sting. One clip was sure to make headlines and a great TV soundbite. In it, Ardebili explains to undercover agents why Iran is so eager to obtain U.S. weaponry:
"They think war is coming."
TEHRAN, DEC. 8, 2009
Days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki fired back, calling Ardebili's arrest and secret detention illegal and political.
"They laid a trap in front of Iranian nationals and deceived them, an act which runs counter to the legal and judicial code of conduct," Mottaki told reporters. "We urgently call on the U.S. administration to put an end to such illogical behaviors and immediately and unconditionally release Ardebili. ..."
In Shiraz, Ardebili's mother felt blindsided by the way the Americans portrayed her son.
"Something dirty and very ugly happened," she said later, speaking through a translator. "We've gone through hardship, but I want to say this with a loud voice, I hope even worse comes upon those who did this to him."
WILMINGTON, DEC. 14, 2009
On the morning Ardebili was to be sentenced, the Wilmington authorities and the U.S. Marshals Service ringed the federal courthouse with squad cars.
They closed two streets and positioned a command center on the plaza beneath a bright-blue tent. They sent up a helicopter and deployed an armored police car, the largest display of force in downtown Wilmington in years.
"There's been information that the defendant's life is in danger," U.S. Marshal David Thomas cryptically told reporters. "Obviously, this is a case of national security."
At 10 a.m., the chief judge in Delaware, Gregory Sleet, convened a closed hearing. Only the ICE agents, prosecutor Hall, defense attorney Lyons, and defendant Ardebili were permitted to attend.
When the doors were opened an hour later, it marked the first public court proceeding since Ardebili's arrest in October 2007.
The Iranian turned slowly to scan the faces in the courtroom. Ardebili's wife was not there, nor was anyone from the Iranian government.
"Mentally," Lyons recalled, "that was devastating. He realized he was alone."
Lyons stepped to the lectern to address the judge. "You know, this is one of those cases they didn't tell you about in law school. . . ."
"Or judge's school," Sleet said.
Lyons argued that the sentencing-guideline recommendation - 12 to 14 years - should not apply in this case. News accounts describing Ardebili as an "arms dealer" were misleading and unfair, Lyons argued.
"He was just a little guy . . . a cog in the wheel. . . ."
Ardebili had been punished enough, Lyons argued. He'd spent two years in solitary for acts that are illegal only because the United States and Iran are engaged in a cold war. The lawyer added, "He is a man who, in many ways, is caught between two nations."
Lyons asked for a sentence of time served.
Now, it was Ardebili's turn.
He shuffled forward in prison slip-on sneakers and unfolded wrinkled, handwritten remarks. He looked up at the judge, who sat before the Great Seal of the United States.
"I am pleased to speak with your honor face-to-face -."
Ardebili stopped midsentence. He gripped the lectern and began to sob. The judge ordered a break.
Minutes later, Ardebili tried again. "I hope I could give your honor some information which could change my horrible situation. . . ."
He began slowly, confessing and accepting responsibility for his crimes. He didn't wish to minimize what he'd done, he said, but he was no "international arms dealer."
His pace quickened.
"How could I be an international arms dealer when I was on a business trip for first time in my life with my father? What international arms dealer acts like this?"
The things Ardebili bought for Iran were not weapons of war, he maintained. "I was working in company which supplies spare parts. . . ."
Spare parts? No weapons? Assertions were bleeding into obvious lies. His lawyer realized he needed to correct Ardebili before he did too much damage to his credibility. Otherwise, the prosecutor and judge would hammer him.
The defense lawyer cut in. "Do you agree the computers you bought were for F-4 fighters?"
"All right. Did you, at one point, talk with the undercover agents and say the Iranians believe war is coming?"
"What did you mean?"
"Iranians think that when the U.S.A. targeted Iraq and Afghanistan, they think that the next target may be Iran."
But war is not inevitable, Ardebili added. In fact, he told the judge, his case could make the difference. A just resolution could improve U.S.-Iranian relations. "Big and significant change come after a small spark. Your decision could be the spark to kindle. Turn on your light and wisdom. . . ."
The judge was impassive.
Now, Hall rose to speak for the U.S. government.
"Mr. Ardebili has characterized himself as a businessman, and that is correct. He has objected to the term international arms dealer. We're calling him an Iranian procurement agent."
The prosecutor paused.
"But I don't want to minimize the nature of what it is that he was doing. His offense is very serious, and this is why we do not join in the defendant's request for time served."
Ardebili's business was international, the prosecutor said. It was sophisticated. Ardebili worked for a hostile nation involved in a 30-year cold war with the United States. He bought weapons of war. He flagrantly violated U.S. law.
Hall reminded the judge that the items Ardebili bought from the undercover agents could be used to direct ground-to-air missiles, to project state-of-the-art radar for target acquisition, and to fly the F-4 fighter. On video, Ardebili had said repeatedly his sole customer was Iran's military.
Hall, a captain in the Navy Reserve, ridiculed Ardebili's claim that he bought only defensive weapons systems: "I'm not sure it matters to an American pilot whether the system coming at him was procured for defensive or offensive purposes."
Ardebili, he said, was dangerous.
"He might not be a blood-and-guts-type defendant. He is about invoices and spreadsheets. But what he is doing is very serious. He might not be the one with the gun in his hand, but he's the one who put the gun in somebody else's hand."
Hall sat down and the judge began. Sleet summarized the charges, Ardebili's background, and guilty plea. Then he summoned the Iranian to the lectern.
"You present somewhat of a paradox to this court," the judge said. "On one hand, it seems that you were motivated by profit. Some would call it greed, and the money you made came from an illegal enterprise, [but] it seems you were working within the borders of your nation toward its government's interest.
"Regardless, your offenses could pose, if they haven't already, a direct threat to the security of the United States. You procured whatever the Iranian government required to maintain and update its military capability. . . ."
Sleet noted that he had considered "additional factors." For one thing, Ardebili seemed to show genuine remorse - "the tears were not fake." For another, he was unlikely ever to return to Iran - "You are effectively a man without a country."
Sleet gave him five years.
Ardebili slumped, and Lyons put his arm around his client. "You'll get credit for two years," the defense attorney whispered.
Ardebili remained inconsolable. It meant three more years in U.S. prison.
PHILADELPHIA, FEB. 3, 2010
Two months later, prosecutor Hall read the latest news from Tehran with great interest.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was proposing to trade three detained American hikers, including an Elkins Park native, for Iranians held by the United States.
"There are some talks under way to have an exchange," Ahmadinejad said. "They [the U.S.] have sent messages, we answered ... to bring these people [the hikers]. We are hopeful that all prisoners will be released."
A U.S. spokesman denied any trade talks, but, the Associated Press dispatch noted, Ardebili was among those Iran wanted back.
Hall doubted the United States would trade Ardebili for the hikers, but he found the gambit intriguing: What did it mean in terms of Ardebili's value to the Iranians?
Iran's schizophrenic reaction to the Ardebili case had long befuddled Hall. Iranian diplomats initially fought extradition from Georgia, then allegedly plotted to poison Ardebili. Once he arrived in the United States, Iran ignored him for months, then suddenly took an interest, filing a complaint with the U.N., but failed to follow up by appearing at his sentencing. Now, the president was proposing to trade him for the hikers.
Who was Ardebili, really?
Did it mean he was a bigger fish than they realized? Or was Ardebili merely a pawn in a cold war?
She took a seat at Circa 55, a chic restaurant inside the Beverly Hills Hilton.
Negine Ardebili wore designer jeans, crimson lipstick, and a preppy sweater. She looked like any other young, attractive, single Persian girl in Southern California. That was the point.
"Nobody here knows that I am married and that my husband is in jail," she said, scanning the menu. "I don't want to involve people in such things. It's dangerous. People might think I am a spy."
Her phone chirped, and she checked a text message.
"You see, I have a secret inside, and I am getting used to it. Even my uncle doesn't know everything."
She explained that she did not attend her husband's sentencing because, really, it would have been too frightening. She had not even read the news accounts on the Internet. No, she had not spoken with him since the sentencing. It was best not to call him, she had decided, because she feared she might say something that would get him in trouble. Perhaps she'd write a letter.
"It's really hard," she said. "I think no one can imagine how hard it is. But it's life. It's my life. I have to take this problem as an experience as something to learn from, and transfer it to something else."
Her cell phone buzzed, and she brightened. It was a painter friend, and Negine took the call. She spoke happily for a minute. When she hung up, her frown returned. "Sometimes, I just go and watch while he paints. It helps me."
Negine had lived in the Beverly Hills area for 14 months now. She was a legal resident, owned a Volkswagen, carried a California driver's license, and had moved from her rich uncle's home to a rented place. But, like her husband, she remained in limbo. With the visa she held, she could not work or attend college.
So she spent her days just waiting, she said.
"I will wait if it takes 10 years."
Immediately after Ardebili's December sentencing, the U.S. marshals whisked him from the Wilmington courthouse.
The Bureau of Prisons delivered the Iranian to a maximum-security facility in Northeast Pennsylvania, the first stop in an eight-week journey that took him to five prisons, in New York, Ohio, and Oklahoma. The Bureau of Prisons called these transfers "routine."
In February, he arrived at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., a prison with psychiatric facilities. Ardebili was placed in the general population and was thrilled to have roommates.
The Rochester prison let him use his real name and granted him access to the telephone and e-mail.
Like a lot of freshly sentenced inmates, Ardebili was upset with the outcome of his case. He fired his trial lawyer and appealed his sentence.
He started writing new letters - imploring Iranian diplomats to get involved, searching for his wife, and seeking funds for his defense.
His projected release date is Feb. 8, 2012.
"And then I will go home to Iran," he said recently. "Why not? I've done nothing wrong. I didn't harm my people or my government. I just tried to help myself. ... They label me as an international arms dealer, which is really a big lie. I'm nobody, but these U.S. people didn't understand, or they don't want to understand. It's propaganda."
PHILADELPHIA, MAY 2010
From the U.S. Customs House, Homeland Security supervisor "John Richards" dialed an old friend.
He offered an Operation Shakespeare update.
Since Ardebili's arrest, Richards had spent two years briefing senior officials and agents, making presentations nationwide, laying out Iran's procurement network, urging others to set up their own undercover ops.
Meantime, his team had been busy exploiting Ardebili's laptop. They'd identified 30 Iranian front companies and 20 Iranian brokers like Ardebili, and 100 suspect U.S. companies, many with Pentagon contracts.
Homeland Security and other agencies had launched 102 investigations, two dozen of them labeled high priority. Search warrants were executed in Arizona and New York. At least four cases led to indictments. More were pending.
Still, to date, only one minor case was public. The rest remain sealed - either because the indicted were fugitives, because they were cooperating as informants, or because the evidence had led to bigger fish, an investigation continuing in the shadows.
In an additional three dozen cases, prosecutors decided not to file charges because they couldn't prove the American companies knew for sure that their products were headed to Iran. Instead of indictments, federal agents paid quiet visits to corporate executives, issuing informal warnings and soliciting help in the future.
And now, Richards explained on the phone to his friend, he was deep into a new sting, one that might top Operation Shakespeare. Could he come to Philadelphia to discuss it?
The friend, as always, answered with enthusiasm. The case sounded righteous. He promised to get there straightaway.
They'd figure out the paperwork later.
Contact staff writer John Shiffman
at 301-320-6655 or email@example.com.