Case of Iranian businessman convicted of illegal satellite exports shows nuances of laws

The Associated Press

The Federal Correctional Institution in Hoepwell, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. Seyed Amin Ghorashi Sarvestani, a wealthy Iranian entrepreneur, who is imprisoned at the facility in Hopewell, is challenging a 30-month prison sentence for conspiring to illegally export satellite equipment to Iran. He pleaded guilty in New York last May, but the federal government issued a new license that his lawyers say approved for export the products he was convicted of helping ship. Federal prosecutors said after sentencing that they had mistakenly exaggerated the technology’s capabilities. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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The Justice Department typically focuses on cases involving large quantities of illegal exports and prioritizes nuclear technology, munitions and materials related to weapons of mass destruction, said federal prosecutor Ryan Fayhee, who previously served as the department's national export control coordinator.

Sarvestani's lawyer, Bill Coffield, conceded that the new regulations, issued after his client had broken the law, did not negate the crimes. But he urged the judge to take into account that the communications gear was for a private company — not the government or the military — that provided satellite-based Internet access. He said the new export license encompasses the technology Sarvestani provided and said his actions were consistent with U.S. foreign policy. He said prosecutors made a critical error at the sentencing hearing in saying the technology could control an orbiting satellite and therefore wasn't covered under the new export license.

The government corrected its mistake in a subsequent letter to the judge, saying the devices help in the monitoring and positioning of satellite antennae but do not themselves control satellites, though prosecutors have not taken a position on whether the parts at issue are now legal and say that determination falls within the Commerce Department's purview and has yet to be made.

The case is unfolding as the Obama administration pursues broad-based export control changes to correct a system the government has said is too complicated. Separately, the U.S. and other global powers are also in talks with Iran on a pact that would stop certain Iranian nuclear activities in exchange for ending sanctions on the Islamic republic.

Experts say the Sarvestani case raises an intriguing policy discussion, even if the new regulations cannot negate his crimes.

"If you export something on Day 1, and Day 15 the government changes the classification of the item based on some regulatory change, you're still stuck on Day 1," said former Commerce Department official Christopher Wall, a lawyer focused on export control law.

U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe has been weighing defense arguments that the prison term was disproportionately harsh and based in part on prosecutors' mistaken representations. He's so far appeared disinclined to change the prison sentence, writing in an order last month that his sentence accounted for a broad range of factors, including "the level of deception employed by the defendant, the intentional nature of his acts" and "his high level of sophistication."

Meanwhile, Sarvestani passes time at his low-security prison reading and speaking with his wife. He says his bank accounts have been closed and his businesses have folded. Though apologetic at his sentencing hearing — "No words can express how guilty I feel," he said then — he has since struck a more defiant tone in an interview and emails.

"I think it should be consider as one of the strangest fraud cases, if what we did was exactly in line with the U.S. government policies and also it would be against the Iranian government policies!" he wrote.

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