Grab from Iranian state TV allegedly of Amir Mirzai Hekmati confessing to being a CIA spy, aired on 18 December 2011
Amir Mirzai Hekmati was shown on state television “confessing” to being a CIA spy

A US man of Iranian descent has been sentenced to death by a court in Tehran for spying for the CIA.

Amir Mirzai Hekmati was “sentenced to death for co-operating with a hostile nation, membership of the CIA and trying to implicate Iran in terrorism,” semi-official Fars news agency said.

The 28-year-old’s US-based family say he was in Iran visiting grandparents.

The sentence comes at a time of fresh tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that further sanctions imposed by the West “will not have any impact on our nation”.

“The Islamic establishment… knows firmly what it is doing and has chosen its path and will stay the course,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television.

Televised ‘confession’

Iran says that, as a former US marine, Mr Hekmati received training at US bases in Afghanistan and Iraq before being sent to Iran for his alleged intelligence-gathering mission.


image of James Reynolds
James Reynolds BBC
Iran correspondent.

Iran’s judicial and political systems place huge emphasis on the importance of confessions. So, for many in Iran’s establishment, Amir Hekmati’s guilt was proven beyond doubt during a televised confession broadcast on Iranian state TV in December.

In his televised statement, Mr Hekmati said he had been sent to Iran by the CIA to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence agencies and spread misinformation. So it’s little surprise that Iran’s Revolutionary Court has now sentenced him to death.

The US state department says Mr Hekmati has been falsely accused, and his family say he had simply gone to Iran to visit his grandmothers.

Mr Hekmati is now expected to lodge an appeal against his sentence with Iran’s Supreme Court.

It’s difficult to predict how the case against him will now proceed. Mr Hekmati has a high profile and holds an American passport. A decision to go ahead with his execution may have an impact on tensions between Iran and the West – which have got worse in recent weeks.

Iranian officials said his cover was blown even before he had arrived in the country, because he had been spotted by Iranian agents at the US-run Bagram military air base in neighbouring Afghanistan.

On 18 December, Mr Hekmati was shown on Iranian state television allegedly confessing to being part of a plot to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence services for the CIA.

Televised confessions form a central part of Iran’s political and judicial system, the BBC’s Iran correspondent James Reynolds says. But human rights organisations strongly question their validity.

During his trial later in December, according to Fars, Mr Hekmati admitted he did have links to the CIA, but had never intended to harm Iran.

“I was deceived by the CIA… Although I was appointed to break into Iran’s intelligence systems and act as a new source for the CIA, I had no intention of undermining the country,” Fars quoted him as saying.

Mr Hekmati’s family, who live in Arizona, say the charges against him are fabricated and that he was in Iran to visit his grandmothers – and they had “struggled to provide Amir with an attorney in Iran”.

His father, Ali Hekmati, a college professor in Flint, Michigan, said his son joined the US military in 2001 and served in the Marines, where he was an Arabic translator.

Dual-nationality arrests in Iran

  • May 2007: Four Iranian-American academics – including Haleh Esfandiari -detained for some three to four months on suspicion of spying
  • June 2009: Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari detained for four months for being a spy after covering post-election unrest
  • Jailed 2009: Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi detained for four months on spying charges

At the time of his visit to Iran and subsequent arrest, Amir Hekmati was working in Qatar as a contractor for a company “that served the Marines”, Mr Hekmati was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

The US has demanded his release, saying he has been “falsely accused”.

The state department said Swiss diplomats in Iran – who handle Washington’s interests because of an absence of US-Iran diplomatic relations – were not allowed to see Mr Hekmati before his trial.

Mr Hekmati has 20 days to appeal against the sentence.

‘Red line’

The sentence further heightens the tensions which rose after the US said it would impose new sanctions on Iran’s central bank and the European Union would impose an embargo on Iran’s oil exports.

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The West believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, although Tehran has always insisted its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

In response to the sanctions threat, Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz – a key route from the Gulf through which 20% of the world’s traded oil passes.

US defence chiefs on Sunday warned that they would take action if Iran closed the strait.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said such a move would cross a “red line” and “we would take action and reopen the strait.”