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Iran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced an Iranian-American to death for espionage today. A former US Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, is accused of receiving training from the US Central Intelligence Agency and attempting to infiltrate Iranian intelligence services. Mr. Hekmati said that he was only in Iran to visit his grandmother and denied all charges of spying.
News of the conviction comes at a time when tensions between the US and Iran are already high. Most recently, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a critical waterway for global energy supplies, and the situation with Hekmati is likely to strain relations still further.
“As with any case involving espionage, there’s no way to know the truth behind either side of the story, but regardless of the facts, the sentencing will only heighten tensions between two countries who don’t need another reason to hate each other,” writes The Atlantic's Dashiell Bennett.
Iran’s Press TV alleged that Hekmati received a decade of intelligence training during his time in the US military and that he began working for the CIA in 2009, with Iran as his primary specialty. Officials also claim that he received training and classified information during a trip to Bagram Airbase, one of the largest US military facilities in Afghanistan, before traveling to Iran. Iran announced that they had arrested Hekmati on Dec. 17.
Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that Hekmati admitted to ties with the CIA, but said he had no intention of working against Iran.
“In this mission I was fooled by the CIA and although I had entered Iran with a mission to infiltrate in the Islamic Republic of Iran's intelligence systems and to turn into a new source for the CIA, I didn't want to hit a blow to Iran,” he was quoted as saying by the Fars News Agency.
American diplomatic officials demanded the release of Hekmati and complained that officials from the Swiss Embassy, which represents US interests in Iran, were not allowed to see him before or during his trial. Charges like those leveled against the Iranian-American are not uncommon in Iran and The New York Times reports that Islamic Republic regularly announces it has captured people spying on behalf of the US and Israel.
Hekmati’s family members in Arizona, where he is originally from, have insisted that he is innocent.
In 2009, three American hikers were arrested while hiking along the Iraq-Iran border and were accused of being spies. One was released in 2010, but the other two were held until September 2011. Also in 2009, American journalist Roxana Saberi, who has Iranian roots, was accused of spying and held in prison for four months.
“We are deeply concerned for the fate and well-being of Amir,” Hekmati's mother, Behnaz, told CNN before the sentencing. “We are also disturbed by the video and reports coming from the Iranian court that describe Amir admitting to being a spy. It is clear to me and our entire family that Amir is speaking under duress.”
Tensions between the US and Iran were already elevated before Hekmati’s sentencing, the BBC reports. In late December, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil trade passes. Iranian officials also threatened to take action if a group of US naval ships passed through the Strait. American officials have said they will respond with military action if Iran attempts to close the waterway.