Two men accused of spying on Iranian dissidents in the United States have pleaded guilty in a Washington court to various charges, in a case that offered glimpses of attempts by the regime in Tehran to track – and possibly target – its exiled enemies.
According to documents attached to the complaint, one of the two was covertly recorded telling the other that a “senator” who participated in a September 2017 National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)/Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) event in New York should be shot.
“He is one of those motherf—ing Jews,” an FBI special agent’s affidavit quoted Majid Ghorbani, an Iranian resident of California, as telling Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar, a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, during a conversation in a car, monitored by “court-authorized electronic surveillance.”
“I swear, motherf—er needs one-one shot,” it quoted Ghorbani as saying. “Doostdar laughed throughout this exchange,” the affidavit added.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department said Doostdar, 39, had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of acting as an undeclared agent of the Iranian government, and Ghorbani, 60, had pleaded guilty to one count of violating legislation relating to U.S. sanctions and transactions with Iran.
They will be sentenced in December and January, and face possible penalties of up to 15 years’ and up to 20 years’ imprisonment, respectively.
The September 2017 event was the first reconnoitered by Ghorbani at the instigation of Doostdar – who according to the Justice Department traveled from Iran to the U.S. three times to recruit and then run his agent.
Ghorbani attended and compiled information on attendees at a second event, in Washington the following May. (Participants on that occasion included former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.)
Ghorbani was paid $2,000 for obtaining photos and biographical information to be relayed back to Iran via Doostdar. Doostdar admitted the money had come from his Iranian government “handler.”
During the first of Doostdar’s three visits to the U.S., he allegedly also covertly photographed two Jewish institutions in Chicago, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit.
An earlier Justice Department statement said Doostdar had traveled to the U.S. “to collect intelligence information about entities and individuals considered by the government of Iran to be enemies of that regime, including Israeli and Jewish interests, and individuals associated with the MEK, a group that advocates the overthrow of the current Iranian government.”
The affidavit said the surveillance had taken place “for the purpose of enabling the government of Iran to target these groups.” The agent said an operation of that kind “could enable a neutralization plan, which may include apprehension, recruitment, cyber exploitation, or capture/kill operations.”
“Under oath, Ghorbani admitted to attending the September 2017 MEK rally and to photographing and gathering information on rally attendees to provide to Doostdar and ultimately to individuals in Iran,” the department said.
‘Committed to holding accountable governments like Iran’
The senator discussed in the monitored conversation was not identified in the affidavit, but on the day concerned, September 20, a “Free Iran” rally protesting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s presence at the U.N. was addressed by former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, an outspoken critic of the regime.
(Other speakers included John Bolton, who would later become National Security Advisor to President Trump, and New York Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel.)
“The defendants both have admitted to conducting surveillance and collecting identifying information for the government of Iran about Americans, and in particular, individuals who were exercising their First Amendment rights to oppose the Iranian government,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in Wednesday’s statement. “The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable governments like Iran that would threaten and intimidate Americans who criticize them.”
“The Iranian government thought it could get away with conducting surveillance on individuals in the United States by sending one of its agents here to task a permanent resident with conducting and collecting that surveillance,” said Jessie Liu, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
According to court documents, Ghorbani entered the U.S. in 1995 to join his parents and siblings who had moved to California, and became a legal permanent resident in 2015.
Doostdar was born in California but left the U.S. at the age of two, moving to Canada and then to Iran.
After the two men were arrested in August 2018, the NCRI/MEK said the incident reinforced the need for Western governments to “prosecute and expel all the regime’s Intelligence Ministry and [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Qods Force agents and all known and undercover agents and mercenaries who pursue the regime’s plots in the U.S. and Europe.”