US denies arms dealer’s release is part of swap deal with Iran

Amir Mirzaei HekmatiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS| |
The United States government has denied that the quiet release and deportation of an Iranian arms dealer is part of a secret deal to swap imprisoned agents with Iran. A US State Department spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that Iranian citizen and convicted arms smuggler Amir Hossein Ardebili had been released from US custody and was on his way back to Iran. Ardebili was captured and abducted by US government operatives in the Republic of Georgia in 2007, during a controversial sting operation. His abduction was the culmination of a three-year-long sting operation, during which he allegedly tried to arrange a clandestine shipment of sensitive military technology from the US to Iran. He was eventually extradited to the US in 2008, and sentenced the following year to five years in prison, for operating as an “arms acquisitions agent for the government of Iran”. Last month, however, he was discretely released from prison in Minnesota and handed over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. US State Department spokesman Noel Clay said that Ardebili was on his way to Tehran via Europe, because he had “completed serving his criminal sentence and has no legal immigration status in this country”. The spokesman also pointed out that Ardebili’s five-year prison sentence was meant to include the nearly two years he spent in Georgian and US detention, prior to his 2009 trial. But some observers, including Laura Rozen at Yahoo News, speculate that there might be a connection between Ardebili’s deportation and the reversal earlier this month of a death sentence imposed by a Tehran court on a former US marine captured in Iran on spy charges. Tehran recently announced that Amir Mirzaei Hekmati (pictured), from Arizona, who was captured in Iran while allegedly on a CIA mission, is to have his death sentence voided, and will face a retrial. Considering that the Iranian government, in the form of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been pressing for Ardebili’s release, Rozen is among those who wonder whether the Iranian weapons dealer’s “swift transfer to Iran is meant to facilitate Hekmati’s release”. US State Department spokesman Clay insisted on Tuesday that Washington does not “see any link between this case and cases involving the unjust detention of US citizens in Iran”.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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