NEW YORK - Iran’s judiciary yesterday sentenced to death an imprisoned American convicted of espionage for the CIA, a punishment that shocked his family and was imposed against a backdrop of increasingly bellicose relations with the United States over the disputed Iranian nuclear program.
The sentence against the American, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, 28, a retired Marine, was likely to become a new point of contention, and possible bargaining leverage, in Iran’s struggle against the West over its nuclear program. A tightening vise of sanctions, which threaten vital oil sales and with them Iran’s economy, has left Tehran feeling besieged and has pushed relations with the United States and its allies to the lowest ebb since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In retaliation, Tehran announced on Sunday that it had begun to enrich uranium at a second site, after having threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping, a measure that would severely curtail oil shipments.
The details of the case against Hekmati have been cloaked in secrecy since he was detained in August in Iran, to which his family said he had traveled to visit his grandparents. Official confirmation that he was even in Iranian custody was not provided until last month. The White House and the State Department, noting that Iranian prosecutors have a history of coercing confessions, denied that Hekmati was a spy and called for his immediate release. The CIA declined to comment.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said, “We strongly condemn such a verdict and will work with our partners to convey our condemnation to the Iranian government.’’
Iran has a record of arresting and convicting Americans suspected of spying, then freeing them later after bail money has been paid. But rights activists said Hekmati’s case was the first in the nearly 33-year history of estranged relations with the United States in which Iran’s Islamic authorities had ordered the execution of a US citizen.
“This whole case is very politically motivated,’’ said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an advocacy group based in New York that has been monitoring Hekmati’s case. “There’s absolutely no evidence against him.’’
In a statement released by Hekmati’s parents and posted on a new website, www.FreeAmir.org, his mother, Behnaz, and father, Ali, said they were “shocked and terrified by the news that our son, Amir, has been sentenced to death.’’
Denying that he was a spy, the parents said, “We believe that this verdict is the result of a process that was neither transparent nor fair.’’ They added, “His very life is being exploited for political gain.’’
Iran’s official news media portrayed Hekmati’s prosecution and punishment in totally different terms, saying he had admitted to investigators that he had been sent to Iran by the CIA after a decade of training and that he had been assigned to infiltrate the Intelligence Ministry. Accounts in the state-run media called his presence in Iran part of an “intricate American plot to carry out espionage activities in the Islamic republic.’’
Hekmati, who was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and spent part of his youth in Flint, Mich., where some members of his family still live, has not been allowed to communicate with relatives or legal counsel in Iran or the United States. The death sentence, ordered by the Islamic Revolution Court Branch 15 in Tehran, can be appealed within 20 days. But Iranian specialists in the United States said the sentence might never be carried out.
The court’s order suggested that Iran was willing to go to new lengths to increase its leverage in dealing with what it views as US-led hostility over the nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but the United States, the European Union, and Israel regard as a cloak to attain a nuclear weapon.
Over the past few years, Iran has endured four rounds of Security Council economic sanctions, the mysterious assassinations of its nuclear scientists, computerized sabotage of its uranium enrichment centrifuges, and the death of its top missile expert in an unexplained explosion after having ignored repeated demands by the United Nations to stop enriching uranium.
Now Iran is confronting the possibility of a preemptive Israeli military strike on its nuclear facilities, a threatened EU oil embargo, and a new US law that could penalize buyers of Iran’s petroleum, its most important export, if the uranium enrichment is not stopped.
The accumulated effects have ravaged Iran’s economy and left the government feeling under assault. It has responded with an offer to restart talks on the nuclear issue, which Turkey has agreed to host. But Iran has coupled its diplomacy with acts of defiance, naval war games, and threats to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, a critical Persian Gulf waterway for Middle East oil shipments, should the West restrict Iran’s oil sales. Petroleum industry analysts said the price of oil, now hovering above $100 a barrel, could double if Iran carried out that threat.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group critical of Iran’s government, called the sentencing of Hekmati “part of what the Iranians and the United States are doing right now to position themselves for the coming negotiations in Turkey.’’
Parsi noted that unlike other cases of espionage against Americans, notably those of an Iranian-American journalist in 2009 and three US hikers who were seized on the Iran-Iraq border, who were all freed, this case involves a man, Hekmati, with a military background.
Parsi also said that, like many Americans of Iranian descent, Hekmati had to get an Iranian passport to expedite his travel to Iran. But the Iranian passport means that, in Iran’s view, he is an Iranian, even though he was born and raised in the United States and has a US passport. Iran does not recognize dual citizens.
“In this case, the US ability to protect its citizens is very limited,’’ Parsi said. “I do hope some sort of way out is found.’’
In a video broadcast last month on Iranian state television, Hekmati identified himself as an Army soldier. But the Marine Corps said Hekmati, who is identified in its records as Amir Nema Hekmati, served in the Marines between 2001 and 2005, the Associated Press reported.