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By John Shiffman
Tue Mar 13, 2012 11:42pm EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Iranian arms broker arrested during a U.S. Homeland Security sting in 2007 was deported back to Iran on Tuesday after serving 4-1/2 years in custody, two American law enforcement officials said.
Amir Hossein Ardebili, a weapons procurement agent from the Iranian city of Shiraz, was arrested during a U.S. undercover operation in the Republic of Georgia in October 2007.
Ardebili, 38, pleaded guilty in 2008 in a U.S. court in Delaware to attempting to buy restricted military-grade radar, gyroscopes and cockpit computers deployed in the F-4 fighter jet.
U.S. officials kept the case secret for years after the 2007 arrest, seeking to exploit the sales data found on the laptop computer Ardebili had brought with him from Iran. He was covertly extradited to the United States in early 2008, and U.S. prosecutors did not make the case public until late 2009.
Ardebili's release this week did not appear to be connected to a prisoner exchange. His sentence expired on February 8, records show. U.S. officials briefed on the matter said the Iranian spent the last month in a Minnesota county jail undergoing a routine deportation review.
The Ardebili case has drawn the ire of Iranian officials who have asserted that his arrest, detention and extradition to the United States violated international law. Tehran lodged a complaint with the United Nations, and the foreign ministry repeatedly cited Ardebili as one of eight Iranians unjustly held by the United States.
American officials have said the case helped expose the manner in which the Iranians use middlemen to illegally procure U.S. military components for their depleted military. According to shipping records and emails, Ardebili often circumvented a U.S. embargo by using a transshipment company in Dubai and banks in Germany and Switzerland.
U.S. officials said that the Ardebili case was significant because it represented the first time law enforcement agents successfully lured an arms broker from Iran to a third country, and then extradited him back to the United States.
The undercover investigation, code named Operation Shakespeare, began in 2004, with queries from Ardebili for aircraft parts and radioisotopes to a Pennsylvania arms brokerage, according to officials.
The American firm was actually an undercover storefront operated by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department, officials said.
In 2007, Ardebili agreed to meet three undercover U.S. agents in Tbilisi, Georgia, expecting to acquire the radar components and gyroscopes. During the meeting, which was secretly videotaped, an agent asked Ardebili why Iran was so eager to obtain the radar technology.
To defend against an expected American attack, Ardebili responded. "They are making special radar ... phased array radar for protection," he said on the videotape. "They think the war is coming."
Ardebili was held in Tbilisi for four months, until the Georgian Supreme Court ordered him extradited to the United States. American prosecutors kept the case under seal for 22 months and held Ardebili in solitary confinement under a false name until December 2009, records show.
Although Ardebili pleaded guilty, he later said in an interview from prison that he regretted the decision. He had been tricked by the Americans, he said. He called the case against him an "elaborate hoax and plot."
In a letter to Georgian officials that he shared with Reuters, he wrote, "You may wish to dismiss me as some common criminal. I am quite positive that the opposite is true. ... The callous disregard of human life and rights, not to mention the shame and pain you caused my family is near unforgiveable."
Two U.S. officials briefed on the matter said that Ardebili's deportation moved with unusual swiftness. The Iranian government provided a new passport, suit and wristwatch, and U.S. agents escorted him to Europe, where he was scheduled to catch a KLM flight to Tehran, the officials said.
(Editing by Will Dunham)
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