Hekmati: Iran's latest political pawn
Twenty-eight-year-old Amir Mirzaei Hekmati.
January 10th, 2012
03:45 PM ET

Hekmati: Iran's latest political pawn

Editor's Note: Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation. Reza H. Akbari is a research associate for the program.

By Geneive Abdo and Reza H. Akbari – Special to CNN

If there were any doubt that Iran has sentenced a young Iranian-American to death purely for political reasons, Amir Hekmati’s family has now provided convincing evidence of Iran’s true motives.

In an interview with the BBC Persian Service, the family said Hekmati, fearful he would find himself exactly in the situation he is in now, visited the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C.,  before  his trip.  He provided detailed information about his background as a former U.S. marine and sought advice from officials at the Interests Section. He asked if they thought this would cause problems for him in Tehran, and they assured him it was safe to make the trip.

Not only did the Iranian officials in Washington mislead Hekmati, but it seems that they alerted the authorities in Tehran, transforming the young man into the latest political pawn in the running conflict between Iran and the United States.

This new information sheds light on both the depth of Iran’s fear of Western intervention and the lengths to which it is resolved to counter mounting pressure from the United States. It should also serve as a warning to many of the Republican Presidential hopefuls that, while it is easy to raise the rhetorical temperature for domestic political gains, taking on the regime in Tehran will be no simple matter.

Whether it is an isolated strike on its nuclear facilities or a larger attack, Iran would retaliate with all its might as would its proxies in the Middle East. Such a development would make the costly, bloody conflict now winding down in Iraq look like a training exercise.

The death sentence for an Iranian-American on charges of “collaborating with a hostile government [the United States], membership in the United States’ intelligence organizations, and attempting to accuse Iran of terrorism” is highly unusual, even for Iran. While Americans have been taken hostage, Iranian-Americans held for long periods in prison, no American in recent memory has received the death sentence.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Iran maintains that its judiciary is independent from politics. But in fact, the Iranian judicial branch is politicized and the majority of the political cases tried in the Islamic courts are predetermined rulings handed down to the judge by higher officials.

The decisions behind sensitive political cases are often made within the upper echelons of the intelligence and security organizations. Trials and the events surrounding political cases are also used for propaganda purposes, which is true in the case of Hekamti.  His confessions were broadcast on December 18 on Iran’s state-run television on a program entitled “confessions of an American Spy.”

According to a subsequent report published by Fars News, a semi-official news agency close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, the accused admitted to staying in the Bagram U.S. military air base in Afghanistan for two months prior to his trip to Iran. According to this report, Hekmati confessed to receiving intelligence training during his stay at the base. Now, it is known that this information, according to BBC Persian’s interview with his family, was provided to the Iranian government through their Interests Section in Washington DC.

Judge Abolghasem Salavati, the judge presiding over Hekamti’s trial, is infamous for handing out heavy prison terms and execution sentences to the majority of the accused in his court. He has presided over many sensitive political cases, such as the trials of the three American hikers, the prominent Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan,  Zahra Bahrami, a  Dutch-Iranian citizen who was executed for “drug trafficking,” and the Iranian politician and diplomat Ebrahim Yazdi. He was also the judge who presided over the numerous show trials following the disputed 2009 presidential election, handing out heavy prison sentences to hundreds of Iranian reformists and dissidents.

More proof of the judiciary’s lack of independence is the direct involvement of the Supreme Leader in choosing the head of the judicial branch. Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judicial branch, was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2009. He is the brother of Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, with close ties to the military and intelligence agencies.

Given the political nature of the judiciary, and what appears to be a shift in how Iran is dealing with sanctions and other aggressive acts by the United States, it would not be surprising if Hekmati becomes another victim among those who have gotten caught in the crossfire of Tehran and Washington’s perennial cold war.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Geneive Abdo and Reza H. Akbari.

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Topics: Iran

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soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    In Iran the judicial and the establishment place huge emphasis on the importance of confessions. As Hekmati's confession was televised, his guilt was beyond any doubt and he deserved his sentence. He had 20 days to appeal against the verdict, yet It's difficult to predict how the case against him will now proceed. Hekmati holds an American passport and his ordeal has gained international attention, which no doubt will put more pressure on the Obama administration.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
    • fererk

      hekmati was born in USA, educated in USA, served Marine Corps of USA, trained to become an intelligence man, what the heck he was in Iran? A Jewish man is going to visit his relatives in Aushwitz and arrested by Nazis, now complaining? Visiting his relatives???? has he ever visited his relatives who are in USA? If you want to go to mountains always mind wolves...

      January 11, 2012 at 1:54 am | Reply
      • fererk

        jerry writes;
        "This guy was receiving intelligence training from the US military in Afghanistan, two months prior before visiting Iran. He told the Iranian government himself, while he was in Washington DC. That's according to his family AND the Iranian government. This guy does not come off as an average Joe Schmoe. Why was he getting intelligence training from the US military? Other articles suggest he is a video game developer of war games. Was he getting research for his video game? Or something more?"

        I am sorry for Hekmati but what can we do under the light of above sentences?

        January 11, 2012 at 1:57 am |
      • Jaws7

        A state of war exists between Iran and the US. I can understand the desire of a person wanting to visit
        relatives in Iran if he is nearby. Hekmati may be innocent but his background in the armed services
        and his confession leaves some doubts. The question I would ask, would we treat an Iranian soldier
        visiting in the US with a similar background any different.

        January 14, 2012 at 3:49 am |
      • Virginia

        imho,now we are off off topic , but just to let you know about my personal assnssmeet , after having lived almost my entire life in Europe.( from childhood before the revolution )I came to Iran , when Rafsanjani was still in power and I call it the aristrocratic era , and most difficulties and harships we see today, were born during the reign of R.Large scale corruption started during his time and he forgot the intial ideas of the revolution , whose reprensentative Rajai was.I will skip the Khatami period , as nothing fundamentally was done in my opinion. His ideas were noble' , but he was not the fighter to push his agenda through and to survive in the ruling elites of the establishment in Iran you really have to be a heavy duty fighter.When Ahamdinejad was elected , he was attacked an hammered right from the very beginning both domestically and internationally , as the aristrocats in Iran knew what was awaiting them. There was bitter resistance towards AN and his just policies and the last ultimate try was during the election last year.However AN managed to survive' all plots , only god knows how he did it , any other person would have been crushed a long time ago.Coming to the real estate issue , the prices for land and apartemnts in Iran soar to a record high around 5 years ago with prices for luxury apartments hitting $ 10.000, /sqm. AN took a very decisive and controversial decision around 3 years ago , where he managed to centralize ( electronize ) all housing transactions , so that the buliding sharks were faced with a big blow right into their face ( there many details , whic would go too far ). The prices started dropping to level of $ 4.500, /sqm for that same apartment. To give you an example , an average apartment in an average neighborhood now costs around $ 2000, /sqm , which could be considered as moderate.One other measure he took in parallel , was to set up the MEHR project ,the mass building of apartments all over Iran from 50 to 80 sqm , with an average price of less than $ 1000/sqm depeding on the area . On top the government would grant a loan of around 1/3 of the apartmentt value payable over 15 years.The target group is the lower middle class and this project is ongoing with full power.M.Aliit was amusing to read your comment. In deed the Jonubis are hard working people and Khungarm , but please do not forget our Azeris . Without them I think the country would come to an standstill.One last word regarding the Yazdis . I can assure you that there is ZERO unemployment in Yazd , I don't know how they manage it. Personally I know of no Yazdi , who is not a millionaire ( almost )

        December 27, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • lily hyatt

      Excvuse me , you make alot of assumptions First and foremost Hes American hes iranian decent and hes a former Us soldier which makes the Iranians hate him more then just a regular American ,, Iran is known to torture to get confeesions and to threaten to kill family members so this young man did so under those threats ........ He holds dual citizenship in both countrys Iran and America ,, Iran is also using him as a pawn in there political games with the United States <,they are also holding others in the same way to use ,, ,, this man went to visit his Grandmother who is in bad health ,,,

      January 12, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • Sam Oakhley

      Dear Soldier, Im really appalled at the naivety of your thoughts. Its so silly to expect that a guy with these credentials of the Military and having fought wars in the Middle East, would suddenly wake up one day and would like to visit his grandma.
      You are not fighting these wars for American people, its to protect the economic interests of the 1% of the Richest Corporate bigwigs. Hope you get it. Iraq never came to America, but you went in there as sacrificial lambs for your masters in the Senate/|Congress. Iran has not done any harm to you or anyone else so far. But you will be pulled in there to please Israel. Thats the synopsis. Hope you get it!!

      January 15, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  2. Zissa Ramani

    It makes no different if your in US or Iran.

    The US is a corrupted judicial system they block federal discovery laws and depositions for the less powerful side...This way the true terrorist lawyers and corrupted judges can play the system for one side. The powerful side wins.....Judges in Nevada all-- acts as Judge and defense lawyer all in one obstructing judicial process for wealthy donators they are connected to. Judge Michael Cherry is the worse and Judge Timothy Williams they take donations and defend those who donate to them..

    I see no different just the courts in USA are more racist against Iranians.

    This man was full of Arrogance, and it is not an excuses he knew the risk and should not have entered Iran that was stupid.

    Soon he will be released after deals are made.-- Not to worries-

    Americans are sick of proxies wars-

    January 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      I, more than most Americans, am sick and tired of these idiotic proxy wars waged by these right-wing politicians in Washington who are totally devoid of any concern for human life! Yes, like most branches of the U.S.government, the MIC has managed to corrupt our judicial system, too!!!

      January 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
    • lily hyatt

      Americas courts as any has there issues but overall its the best system and the fairest , Racists well we are made of up of all kinds of enthnics groups as many caucasians that are prejudice theres as many black hispanic Arabic etc You sound racist yourself mister ,, the truth is most criminals have more rights then the VICTIMS of there crimes in the America ,,Those convicted of crimes here are treated humanly ,, Even those convicted of the most heinious crimes but hey feel free to go international and check out all the other nations courts prisons system ... American people carry the cost burden of helping people nations all over the world ..we have the most compassionate people we are also the strongest and the bravest ,, guess thats why we are a super power and we are going to stay a super power ,, we make mistakes as anyone but if its so bad here leave many others would lve to come and live here .... we are FREE and are staying FREE ,,,,

      January 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  3. DG

    i like how Iranian intelligence not only reads CNN blogs but also responds to them....
    classic

    January 10, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  4. jerry

    This guy was receiving intelligence training from the US military in Afghanistan, two months prior before visiting Iran. He told the Iranian government himself, while he was in Washington DC. That's according to his family AND the Iranian government. This guy does not come off as an average Joe Schmoe. Why was he getting intelligence training from the US military? Other articles suggest he is a video game developer of war games. Was he getting research for his video game? Or something more?

    January 10, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  5. jp

    @DG My thoughts exactly.

    January 10, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  6. Hahahahahahahaha

    Iranian Intelligence = Oxymoron. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.

    January 10, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • Darius Thompson

      The only oxymoron here is that you can "spell" oxymoron, you moron! LMAO!

      January 15, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
  7. MichaelShams

    Why does it matter what the family says? They are in the dark just like everyone else. Intelligence agents are forbidden to share the nature of their work with anyone including their family. His family, being Iranian, would especially be left in the dark about the nature of his work. Hekmati has made countless travels to the middle east for training & service, both in Iraq and Afghanastan and not once did he think to visit his grandmother in Iran-until recently? A sane person with his CV, intelligence training and military background wouldn't dare step into Iran unless there was a reason. In the trials and tv confession he asserts that he was given a mission to feign defect. He was instructed to go to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and offer them highly sensitive information in two parts. According to his confession, after giving extending to them the 1st part, he asked that they review it and contact him if they saw the information was useful, at which point he would give them the 2nd part for $500,000. Upon reviewing the info, the Iranians contacted Hekmati expressing their interest to work with him. It is not clear if the Iranians were aware of his mission from the get-go or if they caught on as a result of his 'defecting'. This is the story told in the trial and confession. Even if Iran grants Hekmati a more transparant trial- it is highly unlikely the Iranians can provide proof for covert activity. The only proof would be Hekmati's own confession. Whatever the case, Hekmati should be given a fair and transparant trial, otherwise there is no way of knowing what the real story is.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:52 am | Reply
    • Jaws7

      Thank you for providing background I was not aware of. What I do not
      understand is why a person with his background goes to Iran knowing
      a state of war exists between Iran and the US.

      January 14, 2012 at 3:58 am | Reply
  8. Soldier

    They need to release this guy Immediately, he was born in the United States, he is a Citizen of the United States, and most important he was Stationed where i am right now,Bagram and is a Combat Veteran of the United States. Those responsible for this must and will release this man, this United States Marine who deserves to be honored, all he was doing was visiting his relatives in Iran and they Grabbed him knowingly that he was coming because it was him that wanted to make sure it was safe to travel there to Iran and his Iranian officials in Washington sold him out letting them know when he was coming, in my opinion this whole thing is wrong and will be resolved quickly, i can assure you that the charges against him are false and they probably made him video tape that so called confession, there really isnt much Intelligence going on out here right now at Bagram, if he was gathering so called Intelligence it wasnt anything significant, he was probably assigned to a section whos Job is Intelligence and that is all focusing on past events.It also depends on what Rank he is because if he is Lower Enlisted there is no possible way he could know anything of significance. I will end this Opinion by Stating they will Eventually release him because if they do not release him they will have to suffer the consequences of the United States. Unless they want to go to war with the United States because the American public will not Tolerate this kind of abuse of one of their own Citizens/Soldiers.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:24 am | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Do you think for one moment that Obama or any of his right-wing henchmen care about this guy? I think not! He's only a pawn in the game of trying to obtain Iran's oil any way they can. Moreover, to them going to war is big business.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:36 am | Reply
    • Sam Oakhley

      Dear Soldier, Im really appalled at the naivety of your thoughts. Its so silly to expect that a guy with these credentials of the Military and having fought wars in the Middle East, would suddenly wake up one day and would like to visit his grandma.
      You are not fighting these wars for American people, its to protect the economic interests of the 1% of the Richest Corporate bigwigs. Hope you get it. Iraq never came to America, but you went in there as sacrificial lambs for your masters in the Senate/|Congress. Iran has not done any harm to you or anyone else so far. But you will be pulled in there to please Israel. Thats the synopsis. Hope you get it!!

      January 15, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  9. joe anon 1

    he is guilty same as the three wandering tourists recently released by iran.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  10. ATTACK IRAN NOW

    if obama want to win the election 200% he must attack iran now and show the world that this dark evil empire can be stopped. thos evil thugs shiia of iran are helping the terrorists orginization hizboallah and syria thugs bashar al kalb and nori al maleki of iraq evil helping evil. iran has the weapon of mass destruction , sanction will be not good for those thugs,

    January 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      If being stupid was to be a virtue, ATTACK IRAN NOW, you'd doubtlessly would be a living saint!!! I've seen a lot of stupid posts here, but this one takes the cake!!!

      January 11, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
    • gerald

      if you want to go to war grant your prez the 2.1 trillion debt increase then

      January 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
    • Marden Zepeda

      You are the evil empire , threatening every ones way of life , all over the world .
      What makes you think yours is the way that aplyies to all ?
      Death to you jew oriented thinking people.

      January 28, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  11. Petterson

    hahahhahahaha, an amateur agent !!! visiting a grandma, what a fu##ck

    January 13, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  12. Haluk

    This one go under "cover" to Iran to visit "grandmother" because "American women" and very possibly "Iranian-Amerrican" neglect this one in secret! This one needs this one!! We do not think that this one belongs in USA, But this one has more "power" than USA and IRAN Combined, because this one is combination!!!

    January 16, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  13. Haluk

    Political Pawn this one!!

    January 16, 2012 at 7:58 am | Reply
  14. ,,,,,,,,,,,,,EVIL SHIIA

    f.................ry him he is shiia and iranian ...let them kill each other those bast.....ered , they invade and killed more than 1 million iraqi,

    January 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  15. ,,,,,,,,,,,,,EVIL SHIIA

    shiia iraninas are evil and they must end usa should start attacking now.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  16. mipolitic

    please excuse me i do not wish to offend anyone , i suggest that no one should play at the hole of the cobra and not expect to be bitten , at least not until the snake has been neutralized, removed , or killed , or until jesus returns. my apologies to animal lovers.

    January 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  17. Russ

    I hate to say it but he is not a political pawn. Not with the Iranians wanting a nuclear weapon. He is what is called, "expendable".

    January 17, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  18. Marden Zepeda

    GO IRAN GO !
    we have the right to defend our interest too !
    Palestinia for palestinians.
    GO IRAN GO !
    Death to the out of the diaper rougue coultures !
    GO VENEZUELA GO !
    Death to those who divide my country and people !
    GO KOREA GO !

    January 28, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Reply
    • Marden Zepeda

      Death to all jews

      January 28, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  19. Marden Zepeda

    al arab states , welcome to your new spring,
    welcome to enslavement by the west
    say good bie to enslavement to your local tirant .
    and say hello to your foreign overlords.
    Your petroleoum is ours now , with no one to opose us.
    signed THE US and UE

    January 28, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Reply

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