American Sentenced To Death In Iran

The U.S. reacts to the conviction and death sentence in Tehran for an Iranian American accused of spying for the CIA. The move is likely to further escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S., largely over Tehran's suspect nuclear program.

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A 28-year-old Iranian-American has been sentenced to death in Iran for spying. The parents of the ex-Marine say they are shocked and terrified by the ruling, which comes at a tense time between Iran and the U.S. The Obama administration insists the man was not working for the CIA, and that his case is yet another example of the lack of justice in Iran.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Iranian news reports say authorities caught Amir Hekmati red-handed trying to infiltrate the Iranian intelligence system on behalf of the CIA. His alleged confession has been broadcast repeatedly by Iranian TV.

AMIR MIRAZAEI HEKMATI: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: Hekmati is a former Marine, born in Arizona. He went to high school in Michigan, where his family issued a statement today, saying a grave error has been committed. His mother writes that the verdict is the result of a process that was neither transparent nor fair. Amir is not a criminal, she says, appealing to Iran to show compassion and not murder her son.

At the State Department today, spokesperson Victoria Nuland says officials are working with Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, to confirm news of a verdict in the case.

VICTORIA NULAND: We've maintained from the beginning that the charges against him were a fabrication, and we call on the Iranian government to release him immediately.

KELEMEN: Nuland says Iran has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies. Allegations that Hekmati either worked for or was sent to Iran by the CIA, she says, are simply untrue. His family says that he was visiting relatives in Iran.

One Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment, Karim Sadjadpour, says he believes that.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I have no reason to doubt that story. I just think that had I been able to speak with him before he went to Tehran, I would have strongly advised him to hold off on his visit because he does have a sensitive background.

KELEMEN: One that fits right into the Iranian narrative. Iran recently showed off a U.S. spy plane that apparently crashed inside Iranian territory and often accuses the U.S. of using dual nationals as spies.

Sadjadpour says Hekmati's case also comes at a particularly risky time as the U.S. tightens the financial noose around Iran over Tehran's suspect nuclear program.

SADJADPOUR: The level of economic and political coercion against Iran has reached unprecedented levels. And I think Iran is looking for leverage wherever it can find it. And this young man of Iranian origin, who ostensibly went to visit his grandmother in Tehran, I think unfortunately walked into a trap.

KELEMEN: Haleh Esfandiari, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, agrees. She says Hekmati must be devastated by the verdict and the time he's already spent in prison. She knows the feeling, having spent 105 days in solidarity confinement in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. Though Esfandiari was not surprised by the Iranian tactics in Hekmati's case, she was taken aback by the death sentence.

DR. HALEH ESFANDIARI: I was shocked because I never expect a death sentence for this kind of assertion, you know. And as usual, the trial was behind closed doors. They didn't make any evidence public.

KELEMEN: Esfandiari doesn't think Iran will carry out that sentence, but predicts this case could drag on for months or even years, and will be yet another source of tension between the U.S. and Iran.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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