As in any good spy story, there are questions: Was Hekmati coerced into making a false confession? Was he telling the truth? Or was he another innocent pawn in the covert intelligence war between Tehran and Washington?
In one Dec. 18 Iranian video, Hekmati said, “It was their [the CIA’s] plan to first burn some useful information [i.e., take classified secrets the United States was willing to pass to the Iranians], give it to them and let Iran’s intelligence ministry think that this is good material.” That was to put him in a position as a double agent, according to a Tehran Times story.
In the intelligence world this is called a “dangle operation,” where a well-trained person is sent into a foreign country with a story that he or she is willing to give or sell. To prove credibility, the “dangled” agent provides “secret” information.
Security agencies worldwide are familiar with the tactic and almost immediately place the person involved under suspicion. A country such as Iran would use intense interrogation — and physical torture — to expose a double agent.
On the other hand, Iran’s recent history has been to arrest innocent Americans for spying and release them when it sees fit.
Hekmati’s Marine service and subsequent Pentagon-related jobs made him a more likely catch for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security to use for propaganda.
Iran learned the details about Hekmati’s background last summer when he applied to the Iran interest section in Washington for a passport to visit his grandmother for the celebration of Ramadan. Though he was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., his parents were born in Iran, which automatically meant dual citizenship. To visit Iran he had to use an Iranian passport, according to the interest section.
His application required him to supply his birth, education and military service records , employment history and foreign travel. It required him to list separately the foreign countries where he had spent more than six months.
Hekmati was assured by the Iran interest section that despite his military service in Iraq and later work as a Pentagon contractor and subcontractor, it would be safe for him to visit, according to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Hekmati flew to Tehran in mid-August and spent almost two weeks at his grandmother’s house, according to Ghaemi.
He was arrested Aug. 29.
After the video “confession,” his mother, Behnaz Hekmati, said, “It is clear to me and our entire family that Amir is speaking under duress.”
Hekmati joined the Marines in August 2001, after graduating high school in Flint, Mich. He trained at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as a rifleman, but because he spoke some Farsi he was sent to the Defense Language Institute to learn Arabic. From April through September 2004 he was deployed to Iraq doing translation work. In August 2005, as a sergeant, he left the Marines after his four-year enlistment ended.