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Iranian satellite case in New York takes complex turn

  • The Federal Correctional Institution in Hoepwell, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

HOPEWELL, Virginia: Federal agents intercepted the wealthy Iranian entrepreneur at a U.S. airport, questioned him about his business and charged him with illegal export of American-made satellite equipment to his native country.

Seyed Amin Ghorashi Sarvestani pleaded guilty soon afterward, but changed circumstances now have encouraged him to challenge his 30-month prison sentence.

Since his plea, the federal government has approved for export to Iran the very products he was convicted of helping ship, his lawyers say. Then federal prosecutors in New York told a judge after the sentencing hearing that they had mistakenly exaggerated the equipment’s capabilities. The judge hasn’t moved to change the sentence, though lawyers for both sides are continuing to press their arguments.

Whatever happens, the case illustrates the complexity of laws in which actions banned one year may become legal the next and where one government priority, controlling exports in the name of national security, can brush up against another – in this case, promoting Internet freedom for Iranian citizens.

“I am neither an activist nor politically motivated,” Sarvestani, 47, wrote from prison in an email to the AP explaining his business of providing satellite-based Internet communications to Iran. “I am simply a citizen of the Earth who believe the Internet is a true miracle in mankind history.”

The Justice Department has stepped up enforcement of export restrictions in recent years, winning convictions in the illegal export of microwave amplifiers to China, defense missile batteries to Iran and military aircraft engines to Venezuela, among others. While the U.S. imposes stringent restrictions on doing business in Iran, the “devil is in the details” in this area of law because both regulations and U.S. foreign-policy interests can change, said Chicago attorney Daniel Collins, an export controls expert and former federal prosecutor.

“Knowing what you can and can’t do is not as straightforward as you might think,” he said.

In Sarvestani’s case, there’s no dispute that he broke the law, though he contended in an interview at prison that his crimes were more the result of negligence than intent.

Prosecutors say the millionaire entrepreneur, with an electronics background and diverse business holdings that over the years have included edible oils, marine equipment, pizza shops and food distribution, understood the law and intentionally subverted it through his dealings with interrelated companies in the United Arab Emirates. They say he conspired over the course of several years to ship the technology through other nations to conceal that it was destined for Iran and urged employees to be careful to avoid getting caught. He’s been in custody since his 2012 arrest at Washington’s Dulles International Airport.

On May 30, 2013, three weeks after his guilty plea, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control legalized for export to Iran smartphones, satellite phones, anti-viral software and other technology related to Internet communication.

The policy change was billed as part of an effort to connect the Iranian public to the world through communications. President Barack Obama, in a March 2012 statement, warned that Iran’s “electronic curtain” was cutting off the country’s citizens from the rest of the world, blamed the government for jamming satellite signals to shut down television broadcasts and said the “freedom to connect with one another” was a basic right.

Collins said that while the administration pursues that goal, there’s a competing concern that communications equipment with multiple uses “can be used for a purpose that might be beneficial, but it also can be misused for a purpose that is detrimental to the United States and, quite frankly, the world’s interest.”

The Justice Department typically focuses on cases involving large quantities of illegal exports and prioritizes nuclear technology, munitions and materials related to weapons of mass destruction, said federal prosecutor Ryan Fayhee, who previously served as the department’s national export control coordinator.

Sarvestani’s lawyer, Bill Coffield, conceded that the new regulations, issued after his client had broken the law, did not negate the crimes. But he urged the judge to take into account that the communications gear was for a private company – not the government or the military – that provided satellite-based Internet access. He said the new export license encompasses the technology Sarvestani provided and said his actions were consistent with U.S. foreign policy. He said prosecutors made a critical error at the sentencing hearing in saying the technology could control an orbiting satellite and therefore wasn’t covered under the new export license.

The government corrected its mistake in a subsequent letter to the judge, saying the devices help in the monitoring and positioning of satellite antenna but do not themselves control satellites, though prosecutors have not taken a position on whether the parts at issue are now legal and say that determination falls within the Commerce Department’s purview and has yet to be made.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 14, 2014, on page 9.
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Summary

Seyed Amin Ghorashi Sarvestani pleaded guilty soon afterward, but changed circumstances now have encouraged him to challenge his 30-month prison sentence.

Since his plea, the federal government has approved for export to Iran the very products he was convicted of helping ship, his lawyers say.

While the U.S. imposes stringent restrictions on doing business in Iran, the "devil is in the details" in this area of law because both regulations and U.S. foreign-policy interests can change, said Chicago attorney Daniel Collins, an export controls expert and former federal prosecutor.

He said the new export license encompasses the technology Sarvestani provided and said his actions were consistent with U.S. foreign policy. He said prosecutors made a critical error at the sentencing hearing in saying the technology could control an orbiting satellite and therefore wasn't covered under the new export license.


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