The Agent From Iran
On November 29, 2004, Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan and her ex-husband, Mahmoud Seif, checked into Le Meridien Hotel in Vienna, Austria. The following morning, Gholikhan used Seif's cell phone to call the man they had flown there to meet. "Alex," a weapons dealer from Fort Lauderdale, told the couple to come to the InterContinental Hotel. His bodyguard would be waiting in the lobby.
Gholikhan, then just 26 years old, stood five feet tall, with brown eyes and olive skin; she could have passed for Greek or Italian. She dressed stylishly, in Western clothes, with makeup and jewelry. When in Iran, she covered her shiny dark hair with a headscarf. Her native language was Persian, but she spoke fluent English in a lilting, musical voice.
Seif, then about 40, didn't speak English at all. His short, thick hair was turning a little gray. He had a medium build, rough skin, and a crooked smile.
Gholikhan maintains that the moment she walked up the steps to the Intercontinental Hotel on that rainy day, she became accidentally caught up in her shady ex-husband's international plot, an unwitting victim of both Muslim traditions and American politics. Federal authorities have a different theory: That she was a slick operative of the Iranian government, her actions intentional and designed to put U.S. security at risk.
Seif and Gholikhan met the bodyguard, a quiet, imposing man in a brown suit, near the check-in counter. He led them to the tenth floor and down a long hallway.
Alex opened his room door and greeted the couple in English. He called Gholikhan "Ms. Fahimi." She did not correct him.
After the exchange of pleasantries, talk turned to business. Gholikhan translated between English and Persian for the two men. A payment of $10,500 had already been deposited in Alex's Fort Lauderdale bank account. In return, he was ready to hand over the product: one sample pair of military-grade Generation III, F550 Series night-vision goggles manufactured by New York-based ATT.
The goggles convert photons into electrons, multiply them thousands of times, then convert them back into photons projected onto a screen. With just a bit of faint starlight, a soldier wearing the goggles in darkness can see as though it's practically daytime. Experts say the coveted Generation III model — commonly called "the Pirate" by U.S. infantrymen — is the second-most-wanted item on foreign spies' wish lists.
There was just one obstacle: It's against U.S. law to export them to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Alex pulled out some yellow documents — an export license and end-use certificate that permits him to carry the goggles. Without similar paperwork, Seif would have trouble crossing borders.
Gholikhan grabbed the papers. Alex snatched them back. She said, "What do you mean, it's illegal? We can't just put this in our luggage and go home?" Gholikhan claims that Seif then muttered in Persian for her to shut up; he'd explain everything later.
The trio discussed the possibility of shipping the goggles via DHL. Ultimately, Seif decided it would be better to drop them at the Iranian Embassy there in Vienna. They could be placed in a diplomatic purse, treated as sovereign property, and carried out of Austria undetected.
From a separate hotel room, Special Agent Ron Kriske, a square-jawed, bald-headed officer fighting weapons proliferation for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), secretly watched the meeting on monitors and listened via an audio feed. A translator interpreted the Persian for him. He claims he never recorded the meeting.
After 15 minutes, Seif, Gholikhan, Alex, and "the bodyguard" (in actuality, a German-speaking Austrian agent) made their way out of the hotel to a gray Audi. Seif carried a laptop. Alex opened the trunk. He unzipped an Adidas duffle bag. Inside was a smaller green bag. He invited Seif to lean his head in the trunk and peer through the goggles.
Seif accepted the duffle, and the parties said their goodbyes. Seif and Gholikhan were about ten steps away from the car when teams of policemen jumped out of two vans, guns drawn.
By the time the case finally made it to an American court four years later, Gholikhan had served 28 days in Austria, slipped by extradition attempts in two countries, and surprised everyone involved by voluntarily boarding a plane to Miami and surrendering to federal officials. She claimed to be a victim of her husband's orders. In her own defense, she told a federal jury a tale that sounded like a surreal spy thriller, stretching from Austria to Dubai to China, featuring a cast of mullahs and Muslims and laced with kidnappings, aliases, and abortions. It was either so convoluted it had to be true or else a wild attempt to bluff her way through the court system.
She faced at least 20 years in an American prison, but upon this strange tale, Gholikhan — bold yet polite, rebellious but God-fearing — was willing to gamble her freedom.
To understand Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan — and her defense — it's important to understand the backdrop against which her story unfolded.
"I was born a Muslim in Muslim family," Gholikhan wrote in a letter to New Times. (Gholikhan wanted to meet for an interview, but jailers at the Federal Detention Center in Miami forbade it.) She was born December 6, 1977, the middle child in a wealthy family. Her mother was a professor of linguistics at a university in Tehran, her father a civil engineer.
Gholikhan was just a year old when the Iranian Revolution brought hard-line Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini to power. The United States prohibited all exports to Iran to protest human rights abuses overseen by Khomeini.
Gholikhan grew up under the Ayatollah's tough policies and enforcement of conservative cultural mores, including the requirement that women must obey their fathers and husbands. Females are encouraged to wear headscarves but often flaunt makeup and tight-fitting outfits. Sexual urges are accommodated by "temporary marriage" — an arrangement that can be set to expire after as little as an hour. Men can have multiple wives.
Gholikhan's family members were faithful Muslims who prayed five times a day but weren't radical. Her grandmother instilled in her harsh lessons about Islam. "If a stranger man would ever see only one hair of yours," her grandmother would say, "you are going to be hanged in hell forever and ever with only that one hair, because you sinned!" She says that, as a child, she was scared to even touch a Qur'an. She pestered her family by constantly challenging the rules.
"The number of my questions always drove my grandma nuts. Her last answer to me was, 'Dear Naughty Shahrzad, I don't know how to answer your questions, but this is how it is written in the book. Pray to GOD and ask him to send you an answer in your dreams.'
"For which, I did it, and glory to him for answering all."
In the mid-1990s, when she was still in her teens, Gholikhan's family arranged her marriage to a virtual stranger. Gholikhan gave birth to twin daughters, Melika and Melina. Her husband was kind, but she says he used drugs, so she divorced him.
In February 2000, Gholikhan went to a caterer to buy food for her girls' third birthday party. She noticed an intimidating man at the counter, one of the ultrareligious, mullah types that she resented. She shouted at the caterer, half-teasing, half-threatening to take her business elsewhere if he was going to serve men like that.
The man at the counter — Mahmoud Seif — must have interpreted her mocking as flirtation. He contacted Gholikhan's father. Within two weeks, she was his wife. "Imagine," she wrote, "I was kicking him out of window, he was coming in from door. I was closing all doors, he was coming out of the sink!"
Shortly afterward, the couple moved to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. A booming city and the financial capital of the Persian Gulf, Dubai offered a more liberal lifestyle. There, young people go dancing, alcohol flows freely in hotels, and women can wear bathing suits — although religious police may warn men against looking. Gholikhan attended a Dubai university and earned an MBA. She took English courses and established a TV and advertising agency called Twins Group. "I was not even paying attention to politics in Iran," she would later testify.
Seif, meanwhile, lived mostly in Tehran but came every few weeks to Dubai. He did business in both cities. Gholikhan knew he had been a military officer in his youth, but now he operated several companies, including one called Noor-al-Fath General Trading Co. He sold copiers and fax machines.
Gholikhan says she was happy about the long-distance arrangement — she wanted to "get away from those people with their mullah-ful idea and words!" She concentrated on raising her children.
Gholikhan says that between 2000 and 2004, she had a host of marital problems with Seif. He was abusive, she claims. She vacillated between fighting him tooth and nail or simply, when she wore herself out, submitting to his will. At one point, she said, she had a heart attack because of the stress. "It was like, you know, Tom and Jerry," she testified, referring to the cartoon.
Gholikhan's path to that hotel in Vienna began with an email. It was sent on June 24, 2002, to an arms dealer identified in court papers simply as "Alex." The dealer brokers high-tech security items from his office in Fort Lauderdale, and that day, he got an email from a man named Hamid Reza Kargar. The email inquired in English about obtaining 500 units of Generation III night-vision goggles. Kargar made no attempt to disguise the equipment's final destination. Kargar's client — Seif — served the Iranian government.
Alex alerted Special Agent Ron Kriske. From that point, Kriske called the shots. He paid Alex a salary and told him what to say when Kargar called or emailed. He set up recording devices. He laid the trap.
Weeks and sometimes months would pass between communications with Kargar. Over two years of negotiations, Alex made it clear that it was illegal to export night-vision goggles without a special license. Furthermore, the United States has an embargo on trade with Iran. Legitimate buyers were required to sign an end-user agreement stipulating that they would not resell the items. Without the required documentation, crossing borders with the goggles was illegal.
Kargar understood and opted to proceed anyway. At one point, he wanted as many as 3,500 pairs for his client. The men discussed transporting the goggles through Spain, Turkey, or Canada.
On May 18, 2004, Kargar sent a fax proving that $10,500, the cost of one pair of goggles, had been wired from the National Bank of Dubai to Alex's bank account. The fax was on letterhead from Seif's company, Noor-al-Fath. The men planned to meet so that Alex could hand over a sample pair. If acceptable, they would arrange a bulk purchase. During telephone discussions about the deal, Kriske ensured that a tape recorder was always rolling. Faxes and emails were saved as evidence.
On October 15, 2004, Alex got a call from a woman identifying herself as Farideh Fahimi. She explained that Kargar was no longer working for Seif and that she would be taking over the project.
Fahimi told Alex, "Mr. Seif — he's the owner of this company, our company, OK? He is working inside the government of Iran, and he has a good connection, which Mr. Kargar doesn't." She discussed the order — for "different kind of cameras, and whatsoever I don't know, I'm not technical in this part." Later in the conversation, she said casually, "This kind of work, everyone has two or three different names."
On November 8, Fahimi called to say she had been out of the office for laser heart surgery and wanted to talk to Alex about the status of the deal. Agent Kriske took a message.
By November 24, Fahimi and Alex had scheduled a meeting in Austria. A fax, sent from the office of Twins Group, confirmed the details.
Agent Kriske sent ICE agents to Vienna, arranged plane tickets for himself and Alex, and coordinated with the BVT, Austria's version of the FBI. He readied the paperwork necessary to transport one pair of night-vision goggles.
After their arrest in Austria, Gholikhan and Seif each pleaded guilty to one charge of trading defense articles without a license. It was the convenient thing to do, Gholikhan says now. Their punishment was a mere 28 days in prison and a small fine. The couple returned briefly to Dubai, but the UAE deported them to Iran.
Between 2005 and 2007, U.S. agents tried to extradite both Seif and Gholikhan, to no avail. They sent out a "red notice" — an international arrest warrant — through Interpol, hoping the couple might be captured at borders.
So it was a surprise to almost everyone when, in December 2007, Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan popped up in Cyprus. Having heard that the United States was looking for her, she called the U.S. Embassy, asked for a plane ticket, and voluntarily traveled to Miami. She sent her daughters, now 11 years old, to live with their grandparents in Iran. In her letter to New Times, she explained that she agreed to travel to Miami to clear her name. When she disembarked, five officers fingerprinted her and seized her passport and thousands of dollars of jewelry. She smoked two last cigarettes and was brought to the Federal Detention Center.
In spring 2008, the U.S. government offered Gholikhan a plea deal for time served. She accepted and pleaded guilty to one charge. Days later, at the sentencing hearing, the government said there had been a miscalculation. She'd actually have to serve 29 months. Gholikhan balked and withdrew her plea. She'd rather take her chances at trial on six charges: brokering the export of defense articles, exporting defense articles, and attempting to export goods to Iran as well as three related conspiracy charges.
At her first trial in September, she was represented by a court-appointed attorney and did not testify. The jury, unable to hear her voice and compare it to the one on Agent Kriske's recordings, could not agree on a verdict. A new trial was scheduled for December.
This time, Gholikhan chose to represent herself. She forsook regular clothes and appeared in front of the jury in her jail outfit: a set of khaki scrubs, white socks, and government-issued flip-flops.
The case would rest largely on the government's ability to convince a jury that Gholikhan was more than a translator — that she was "Farideh Fahimi" and had acted "willfully and knowingly."
When prosecutor Michael Walleisa introduced his main witness, Kriske, the two men laid out the evidence. They played the tapes so jurors could hear Fahimi's calls. They showed cell phone records linking Gholikhan's number to the time of those calls. Telephone and fax numbers used by Fahimi matched the numbers on Gholikhan's Twins Group business card. Emails to Alex were signed Fahimi but sent from Gholikhan's email, Shahrzad@twinsgroup.net. Some of the emails even mentioned heart problems.
On cross-examination, however, Gholikhan attacked.
"How can you prove this is my voice on those tapes?" she asked Kriske.
"I believe it is you."
"Are you a voice analysis expert?"
"Mr. Seif was my husband!" she cried. "He had access to my company." He could have sent faxes from her machine; he could have logged onto her computer without her knowledge. He could have had another woman make calls from her office.
Gholikhan suggested that, if the meeting in Vienna had been taped, it would exonerate her. It would show her shock at learning the deal was illegal; it would show that Seif told her, in Persian, to shut up. It might even show the reason she never objected when Alex called her Fahimi — she noticed he had a firearm strapped to his ankle, a detail Kriske denied.
"How is it possible you did not record the meeting in Vienna?" Gholikhan pressed.
"At the time, I believed it was recorded. Did I check to see that the equipment was functioning? That someone pressed record? I requested assistance from the Austrians to provide the evidence. I couldn't demand it. I could only ask for it." Later, he contradicted himself, saying he didn't record the meeting because it would have been illegal under Austrian law.
Why, Gholikhan asked, hadn't Kriske simply arranged to extradite her from Austria once her case there was closed?
"My understanding was that it was a nonextraditable offense."
She chided him for not checking that detail beforehand.
Then Gholikhan marched up to the stand and asked him to flip through her passport. It showed that, after being released from Austria, she had been to Holland multiple times and had even flown to China. If an arrest warrant had been issued for her through Interpol, she wondered, "How is it that I have traveled at least six times to Europe and I was never detained or arrested?"
"I don't know," Kriske answered tersely, not inspiring much confidence in the international police system, "and I would like to find out."
"In the end, did you get Mr. Seif here?"
"Do you know what is Mr. Seif's position in Iran?"
"No. I'd like to."
Gholikhan suggested that she was merely a consolation prize for feds who'd failed to rope in the actual bad guys. "You can't find the guilty one," she taunted. "You want the conviction and to close the case. The way Mr. Seif played this game, he won it. He's enjoying life, changing his identity, traveling with a new passport. It's not my job to go get him. You wanted him? Go. I just want to live in Cyprus with my children. I don't want to be involved in politics."
She hinted to Kriske that, unbeknownst to him, Kargar had been in the lobby of the hotel on the fateful day in Austria, right under his nose. She mocked the government's faith in its end-user certificates.
If she were guilty, Gholikhan pressed, why would she voluntarily get on a plane and travel to America to face charges? Why would she act as her own attorney and allow the jury to hear her voice? She waved her arms and ranted: "Is it normal to say, 'Hey look! You cannot extradite me, you cannot arrest me, you cannot get me — but here I am! Arrest me! Take me to court, give me some time to serve in your prison!'?"
"This is unusual," Kriske replied.
More unusual was the tale Gholikhan told when she took the stand. It became a bizarre recounting that painted Seif as a sadistic and unimaginably powerful man. Seif manipulated her over and over again, she explained, enabled by Islamic law.
Shortly after her marriage to Seif in 2000, Gholikhan said, she discovered that he had another wife. That wife threatened Gholikhan with a gun, but Gholikhan calmed her down and suggested they confront Seif together. When they did, he promised to divorce Gholikhan and set her free. Two days later, however, he said he would divorce the other woman instead.
During a trip to Iran in 2002, she testified, she secretly trailed Seif after work and saw him go home with one of his employees — another secret wife. Infuriated, Gholikhan tried leaving for Dubai. Seif had her arrested at the airport. "Your husband complained against you," authorities told her.
"That was the day I realized Mr. Seif's power," she testified. "My father is wealthy, rich, has friends — but he can never do something like that." Finally, Gholikhan told the jury, Seif granted her a divorce.
The problem with being unmarried, she testified, was that she needed a husband's permission to travel back to Dubai. To get the necessary papers, she arranged a sham marriage to another man, who also abused her. She said she escaped him by jumping from the balcony of his 12th-floor apartment over to the balcony of an adjacent building, where a stranger loaned her a head-to-toe covering, called an abaya, and a car. She raced to the Ministry of Justice, had the man arrested, and was granted a divorce. When she left the building, Seif was waiting for her across the street. "He said, 'Look, you cannot ever fight against me. I never tried to beat you.' "
Their relationship remained tumultuous. In September 2003, she said, Seif raped her and she became pregnant. On her way to get an abortion on the black market, she had a car accident and miscarried. "The doctor took me into the surgery and said the baby was gone. Thank God."
By 2004, Gholikhan testified, she was tired and saw the benefit of submitting to him. She decided to give in and "be a real Muslim. Shut my mouth and keep quiet. To save my life and my children's life. Forget about independence and living in Dubai. Just be a slave in his home." They arranged to remarry.
To celebrate, Seif proposed they take a honeymoon trip to Vienna. He had a business meeting there anyway. He said he had to pick up a pair of binoculars. He would need her to translate.
Gholikhan's emotional yet convoluted story was a hard act to follow for prosecutor Michael Walleisa.
"It's normal to have sympathy for the items she has put before you," he said to the jury. "But this defendant is intelligent, resourceful, cunning, manipulative, deceitful, and independent. And she proved that with her own testimony." In closing arguments, Walleisa reviewed the evidence: The phone numbers all matched up. She admitted sending emails. And Farideh Fahimi kept mentioning she had a heart problem. The coincidences were too great to ignore. On the contrary, Gholikhan's wild tale of victimization was just that — a tale.
On the ninth day of trial, after a day and a half of deliberation, the federal jury made its call. It found Gholikhan guilty on three counts related to exporting weapons and not guilty on the three related conspiracy counts. Sentencing is set for March.
As she packed up her yellow legal pads and U.S. marshals took her away by the elbow, Gholikhan said she felt "the prejudice of the American nation." But it was OK. "I won't give up. I will appeal. God is here."
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