WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. has charged two alleged agents of Iran, accusing them of conducting covert surveillance of Israeli and Jewish facilities in the United States and collecting intelligence on Americans linked to a political organization that wants to see the current Iranian government overthrown.
Earlier this week, Ahmadreza Doostdar, 38, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen born in Long Beach, California, and Majid Ghorbani, 59, who has lived and worked in Costa Mesa, California, since he arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s were charged with acting as illegal agents for Tehran. Ghorbani, who was surveilled by U.S. agents, became a legal permanent resident of the United States in 2015.
Their arrests come as the Trump administration ratchets up pressure on Iran. The administration recently re-imposed sanctions on Iran to deny Tehran the funds it needs to finance terrorism, its missile program and forces in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, Doostdar allegedly conducted surveillance in July 2017 on Rohr Chabad House, a Jewish student center at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The surveillance included security features around the center.
Mary Manning Petras, a federal defense lawyer, said a court hearing in the case is set for Sept. 6.
Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, applauded the arrests and thanked the FBI for "disrupting the alleged intelligence gathering efforts of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation with a long record of involvement in, and support for, terror attacks against Jewish and Israeli institutions."
In September 2017, Ghorbani allegedly attended a Mujahedin-e Khalq rally in New York City where he photographed people protesting against the current Iranian government.
The MEK, despite deep ideological differences, were partners with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Following the revolution, the MEK quickly fell out with Khomeini and launched an armed revolt against Khomeini's new theocracy. The group is outlawed in Iran and was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department until 2012.
In late 2017, Doostdar returned to the United States from Iran and made contact with Ghorbani in the Los Angeles area. Doostdar allegedly paid Ghorbani about $2,000 in cash for 28 photographs taken at the September 2017 rally.
The photographs had hand-written annotations identifying the individuals in the photos. These photographs, along with a receipt for $2,000, were found concealed in Doostdar's luggage as he transited a U.S. airport on his return to Iran in December 2017.
In May, Ghorbani attended the MEK-affiliated 2018 Iran Freedom Convention for Human Rights in Washington. During the conference, Ghorbani appeared to photograph certain speakers and attendees, which included delegations from across the United States. On May 14, Doostdar called Ghorbani to discuss the clandestine ways Ghorbani could use to get the information to Iran.
"Doostdar and Ghorbani are alleged to have acted on behalf of Iran, including by conducting surveillance of political opponents and engaging in other activities that could put Americans at risk," said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
The indictment charged Doostdar and Ghorbani with knowingly acting as agents of the government of Iran without notifying the U.S. attorney general, providing services to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions and conspiracy. Both defendants were arrested on Aug. 9, pursuant to criminal complaints issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The FBI's field offices in Washington and Los Angeles investigated the case, which is being prosecuted by the national security section of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section of the National Security Division of the Justice Department.
In March, the Justice Department announced charges against nine Iranians accused of working at the behest of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to steal large quantities of academic data from hundreds of universities in the United States and abroad as well as email accounts belonging to employees of government agencies and private companies.