TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A former U.S. Marine interpreter arrested while on a trip to visit his Iranian grandmothers has been sentenced to death as a CIA spy, state radio reported Monday, in a case likely to become a new flashpoint in the escalating tensions between Tehran's defiance over its nuclear program and Washington's efforts to impose more crippling sanctions.
It was the first time an American citizen has been sentenced to death in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
"We are seriously concerned regarding the death sentence, secrecy, and continued lack of transparency surrounding the prosecution," said Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the New York-based group.
The espionage charges against Arizona-born Amir Mirzaei Hekmati were similar to previous prosecutions against Americans who were sentenced to jail time and later freed, including an Iranian-American journalist in 2009 and three U.S. citizens detained along the Iraq border. Iranian prosecutors, however, had stressed Hekmati's links to the U.S. military in calling for capital punishment.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor described Hekmati, 28, as a victim of false charges and said the U.S. was working with allies to "convey our condemnation to the Iranian government."
"Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA, are simply untrue. The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Regardless of the facts of the case, Iranian officials may now see Hekmati as a potential bargaining chip in efforts to fend off tighter U.S.-led sanctions that could undercut Iran's oil industry.
Iran has recently ramped up its warnings about U.S. economic pressures and military involvement in the region, including threatening to use warships to close off vital oil tanker traffic in the Gulf and displaying a captured CIA surveillance drone last month as evidence of what it called covert plots by Washington.
Swiss diplomats — who represent the U.S. interests in Iran because Washington and Tehran have no diplomatic relations — have tried unsuccessfully to gain access to Hekmati, who graduated from high school in Michigan. Hekmati claims dual citizenship, but Iran considers anyone born to an Iranian father to be a citizen solely of the Islamic Republic.
Hekmati's mother, Behnaz, said she and her husband Ali — a professor at a community college in Flint, Michigan — were "shocked and terrified" by the conviction and death sentence.
"A grave error has been committed, and we have authorized our legal representatives to make direct contact with the Iranian authorities to find a solution to this misunderstanding," she said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "We pray that Iran will show compassion and not murder our son, Amir, a natural-born American citizen, who was visiting Iran and his relatives for the first time."
Iran has often claimed it has detained foreign spies, but few details ever emerge. Hekmati's case stood out as a high-profile propaganda tool for Iranian authorities.
Iran claims Hekmati received special training and served at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading to Iran for his alleged intelligence mission.
In a nationally broadcast video on Dec. 18, Hekmati was shown delivering a purported confession in which he said he was part of a plot to infiltrate Iran's Intelligence Ministry.
Hekmati said in the video that he entered the U.S. Army after finishing high school in 2001 and received military and intelligence training. He said he served as an intelligence analyst in Iraq for two years with duties that included helping Iraqi politicians sympathetic to Americans.
In a statement released the same day, the Intelligence Ministry said its agents identified Hekmati before his arrival in Iran, at Bagram Air Field in neighboring Afghanistan. Bagram is the main base for American and other international forces outside Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Hekmati's father said in a December interview with the AP that his son was a former Arabic translator in the U.S. Marines who entered Iran about four months earlier to visit his grandmothers. He was reportedly arrested in August.
At the time, he was working in Qatar as a contractor for a company "that served the Marines," his father said, without providing more specific details.
It was not immediately clear why Hekmati was a translator in Arabic rather than Farsi, the dominant language in Iran and widely understood in many parts of Afghanistan. Some parts of southeastern Iran, however, have Arabic-speaking communities.
The Marine Corps said Amir Nema Hekmati served between 2001 and 2005, including one deployment to Iraq in 2004 and a stint at the military language institute in Monterey, California. The Marine records do not indicate any deployment to Afghanistan. It was not clear why the middle name was listed differently.
The Iranian radio report did not say when the verdict was issued. Under Iranian law, he has 20 days to appeal.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, spokesman for Iran's judiciary, said if the verdict is appealed, it would go to Iran's Supreme Court, the official IRNA news agency reported.
The sentence was handed down at a time when Iran's nuclear activities are drawing increasingly severe international penalties beyond four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions. The Obama administration has approved new sanctions specifically targeting the regime's central bank and its ability to sell petroleum abroad, but the stronger penalties have not taken effect.
The U.N. nuclear agency on Monday confirmed that Iran has begun enriching uranium at an underground bunker to a level that can be upgraded more quickly for use in a nuclear weapon than the nation's main enriched stockpile. Iran insists it seeks nuclear reactors for energy and research only.
Similar cases against Americans accused of spying have heightened tensions throughout the yearslong standoff over Iran's nuclear program.
Iran arrested three Americans in July 2009 along the border with Iraq and accused them of espionage, though the Americans said they were only hiking in the scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
One of them was released after a year in prison, and the two others were freed in September in deals involving bail payments that were brokered by Oman, which has good relations with Iran and the U.S.
In May 2009, an Iranian-American freelance journalist, Roxana Saberi, was freed after being convicted of spying. At the time, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said the court ordered the reduction as a gesture of "Islamic mercy" because Saberi had cooperated with authorities and expressed regret.
In May 2010, a French academic, Clotilde Reiss, also was freed after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was commuted.
Later that year, Iran freed an Iranian-American businessman, Reza Taghavi, who was held for 29 months for alleged links to a bombing in the southern city of Shiraz. Taghavi denied any role in the attack, which killed 14 people.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.