Tehran, Iran A former U.S. Marine interpreter arrested while on a trip to visit his Iranian grandmothers has been sentenced to death as a CIA spy, state radio reported Monday, in a case likely to become a new flashpoint in the escalating tensions between Tehran’s defiance over its nuclear program and Washington’s efforts to impose more crippling sanctions.
It was the first time an American citizen has been sentenced to death in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
“We are seriously concerned regarding the death sentence, secrecy, and continued lack of transparency surrounding the prosecution,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the New York-based group.
The espionage charges against Arizona-born Amir Mirzaei Hekmati were similar to previous prosecutions against Americans who were sentenced to jail time and later freed, including an Iranian-American journalist in 2009 and three U.S. citizens detained along the Iraq border. Iranian prosecutors, however, had stressed Hekmati’s links to the U.S. military in calling for capital punishment.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor described Hekmati, 28, as a victim of false charges and said the U.S. was working with allies to “convey our condemnation to the Iranian government.”
“Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA, are simply untrue. The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Regardless of the facts of the case, Iranian officials may now see Hekmati as a potential bargaining chip in efforts to fend off tighter U.S.-led sanctions that could undercut Iran’s oil industry.
Iran has recently ramped up its warnings about U.S. economic pressures and military involvement in the region, including threatening to use warships to close off vital oil tanker traffic in the Gulf and displaying a captured CIA surveillance drone last month as evidence of what it called covert plots by Washington.
Swiss diplomats, who represent the U.S. interests in Iran because Washington and Tehran have no diplomatic relations, have tried unsuccessfully to gain access to Hekmati, who graduated from high school in Michigan. Hekmati claims dual citizenship, but Iran considers anyone born to an Iranian father to be a citizen solely of the Islamic Republic.
Hekmati’s mother, Behnaz, said she and her husband, Ali, a professor at a community college in Flint, Mich., were “shocked and terrified” by the conviction and death sentence.