TEHRAN — The assassination Wednesday of an Iranian nuclear scientist in northern Tehran increases the peril for an Iranian American who was sentenced to death Monday, analysts said.
Iranian officials quickly blamed the scientist’s killing on the United States, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries and making it less likely that Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a 28-year-old former U.S. Marine arrested in August and accused of spying for the CIA, will be released anytime soon.
“Unfortunately, the greater the escalation is, the greater the likelihood that the perceived costs of executing him decline,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of a new book about the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran.
In recent years, there has been an increase in mysterious explosions at military and industrial sites in Iran. Three scientists involved in Iran’s nuclear program have been assassinated, and a computer virus called Stuxnet wreaked havoc on the program.
As Tehran faces tighter international sanctions, a faltering economy and continued scrutiny of its nuclear program, the country’s justice system has turned its attention to Iranian Americans.
There has been a string of arrests of dual nationals in recent years. Typically, Iran charges them with espionage and sometimes shows them on state-run television making “confessions,” under what the detainees later say was duress. Negotiations have usually led to the detainees’ release after several months, sometimes after the announcement of a lengthy prison sentence.
But even analysts who believe Hekmati is being used as a bargaining chip say they were taken aback by the swiftness and harshness of his sentence.
The U.S. government, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, has said that Hekmati is not a spy. The CIA has declined to comment on the case, but Art Keller, a former CIA case officer, said Hekmati does not fit the profile of an undercover agent.
“I have a hard time believing that we would send someone over under his true name with his military affiliation well known,” he said. “That’s what you have alias documents for.”
The Arizona-born Hekmati served in the Marines from 2001 to 2005 and served in Iraq for five months. In recent years, he had worked as a contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His family in Michigan says that Hekmati was in Iran to visit his grandmothers for the first time and that he planned to attend the University of Michigan to study economics.
Iranian officials said Hekmati’s execution is a real possibility.
“Certainly Hekmati deserves the death sentence,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, spokesman for the Islamic Engineers coalition, a group of politically active merchants who are close to Iran’s judiciary. He added that the presence of Iranian American dual nationals in Iran posed a security risk.
“We should be much more cautious with them. The U.S. is continuing to send people here for espionage missions,” said Taraghi, who has links to Iran’s intelligence community. “We have warned Iranians living abroad not to fall in their trap.”
An estimated 250,000 Iranian Americans travel each year to Iran, usually to visit family or conduct private business. Iran typically requires them to travel on Iranian passports; most come and go without incident.
In 2007, however, the Tehran government began arresting Iranian American academics. In 2009, it arrested three American hikers and held two of them for two years on accusations of spying.
Last January, Iran executed Zahra Bahrami, a dual national from the Netherlands and the first European Union citizen to be executed in decades. Accused of dealing cocaine and participating in anti-government demonstrations, she was hanged only days after losing her appeal. The judge in her case, Abolghassem Salavati, also heads the Hekmati case.
For some dual citizens, the arrests have cast a pall on travel to Iran.
“I used to go three or four times a year to visit my mother,” said Haleh Esfandiari, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center who was jailed for four months in 2007. “After what happened to me, a number of people started to think twice.”
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.