“We strongly condemn this verdict,” said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department.
Iranian authorities accused Hekmati, 28, of receiving special training at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan before being dispatched to Iran on a spy mission. Hekmati, who was born in Arizona and holds dual citizenship, was given 20 days to appeal the verdict.
The court’s decision comes at a time of increasing tension between Tehran and Washington, as the United States and its allies seek to dramatically toughen economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
Iran has sought to retaliate by threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz and warning a U.S. aircraft carrier not to enter the strategic waterway. Iran has also boasted in recent days of new progress in its nuclear program, signaling that it has achieved its long-stated ambition of starting uranium enrichment at a mountain bunker, using a process that makes uranium that can be upgraded for weapons use more quickly than the country’s main stockpile. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the assertion Monday.
U.S. officials and Iran experts view the charges against Hekmati as further evidence that Iranian leaders are feeling pressure and are looking for ways to regain advantage. One analyst described the former Marine as “another hostage of the U.S.-Iran cold war.”
“The Iranian regime is desperate for any leverage it can get vis-a-vis the United States,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For that reason, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll execute Mr. Hekmati, for he would then cease to be a bargaining chip.”
President Obama signed a bill on the last day of 2011 that placed the Central Bank of Iran under unilateral sanctions, setting off a steep slide in the Iranian currency. Since then, Europe has indicated that it will impose stiff sanctions of its own.
The signs of strain in Tehran have encouraged U.S. officials in their belief that Iran’s leaders will eventually come around to negotiations over their nuclear program. But Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, said the international action may instead be prompting Iran to become even less cooperative. “The Iranians feel a need to push back with every apparent application of pressure by the international community, for domestic political reasons and to maximize their leverage,” Thielmann, a former State Department official, said in e-mailed comments.