NEW YORK – For the fifth time in five years, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is descending on New York to speak at the September opening of the United Nations General Assembly. His previous visits have stirred controversy as a circus of parties, interviews and, in 2007, his provocative speech at Columbia University.
Now we can add one more item to that list of attainments: A hands-on role, starting with a meeting in New York City in 2006, in helping one of his New York party guests commit the felony of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
That story of sanctions violation, pieced together here for the first time, shows Ahmadinejad's brazen abuse of diplomatic courtesies offered to him by the U.S. in allowing him to attend the UN General Assembly — where he is again scheduled to speak Wednesday afternoon.
The details come from evidence introduced in a federal trial in Philadelphia earlier this year of a 65-year-old Iranian-American businessman named Ali Amirnazmi. Press accounts at the time somehow missed Ahmadinejad's role in the case, perhaps because he was mentioned in the indictment only as "Iranian Official #1." But court documents show a web of sanctions-busting intrigue, involving not only Ahmadinejad, but also including communications running through the Iranian mission to the U.N. in New York City, as well as Iran's de facto consular service in the U.S. — the Iranian Interests Section housed at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C.
Out of these interactions grew a sanctions-violating plan to transfer to Iran, from the U.S., advanced technology and expertise in the chemical manufacturing industry.
Ahmadinejad himself has not been charged with any crime. As a visiting head of state, he enjoys diplomatic immunity — which he abused with impunity.
The fellow on the other side of the deal, Ali Amirnazmi, was not so lucky. Amirnazmi was found guilty in February on three counts of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, and one count of conspiracy to violate them. At the same trial, he was also convicted of bank fraud and making false statements to federal officials. Amirnazmi is now in federal custody, awaiting sentencing.
From testimony, letters and other evidence introduced in court, it's possible to sketch a picture of how Ahmadinejad encouraged and agreed to lend a hand to Amirnazmi's sanctions-busting.
Born in Iran in 1944, Ali Amirnazmi came to the U.S. in the 1960s to study at Berkeley, and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Stanford University in chemical engineering. Eventually he settled near Philadelphia, where he founded and ran a business called Trantech Consultants, Inc., marketing a powerful software system he had developed, called ChemPlan. This was a tool for strategic planning in chemical manufacturing industries, sold on a subscriber basis. Among the clients were a number of well-known companies in the U.S.
Since 1996, Amirnazmi had also been doing some quiet business with Iran, in violation of the U.S. trade embargo known as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. But that law-breaking was low-key compared to what came of his meeting in 2006 with Ahmadinejad in New York.
As part of his visit to speak at the 2006 opening session of the U.N. General Assembly in Manhattan, the Iranian president hit town and embarked on his trademark social whirl. He met with peace groups, gave an interview to CNN and guest-starred at a roundtable of the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Sept. 21, 2006, Ahmadinejad also spoke at a reception for Iranians and Iranian-Americans, held in Manhattan. Amirnazmi was among those invited. During the festivities, as Amirnazmi later recounted to a U.S. federal agent, Ahmadinejad asked if anyone were willing to help Iran and do business with them. A number of people raised their hands, including Amirnazmi.
That got the businessman a chance to chat with Ahmadinejad. According to letters written later by Amirnazmi, and later corroborated by correspondence from Iran, the result was a sanctions-busting plan in which Amirnazmi would move back to Iran and transfer his entire business there. According to Amirnazmi's lawyer, speaking in a recent phone interview, the meeting with Ahmadinejad was important to Amirnazmi "in the sense that it encouraged him to believe he would be well received if he moved back home to Iran."
Writing to Ahmadinejad just a few weeks after that New York meeting, in a letter dated Nov. 7, 2006, Amirnazmi recapped his proposal to move himself and his business to Iran. He added: "I await your Excellency's response so I can come to see you in Tehran as soon as possible." He also proposed to lecture in Iran, especially to young people, on "the cruel and tyrannical regime of the United States."
• Click here to see the letter.
Apparently, the Iranian president was willing to lend a hand. In June 2007, Amirnazmi wrote to Ahmadinejad again, thanking him for helping the plan along: "You were kind to facilitate my trip to Iran on June 8, 2007 in order to meet with the National Petrochemical Company and the Technology Cooperation Office of the President."
The following September, in 2007, Ahmadinejad returned to New York to speak again at the U.N. General Assembly. While in town, he met again with Amirnazmi, who was by then sorting out the practicalities of moving his business to Iran, but running into low-level bureaucratic snags.
It appears that Ahmadinejad again pitched in to help, issuing direct orders to two high-ranking Iranian officials to smooth the way for Amirnazmi. Confirmation of this reached Amirnazmi by way of a letter written less than a month later, dated Oct. 7, 2007, from Ahmadinejad's chief secretary, under the letterhead of Iran's Office of the President.
• Click here to see the letter from Ahmadinejad's office.
The letter referenced Amirnazmi's interest in transferring ChemPlan to Iran. It also summarized Ahmadinejad's instructions to help him, as issued to Iran's oil minister, Gholam Hossein Nouzari, and to Sadegh Mahsouli, a presidential adviser and veteran of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ahmadinejad urged both officials to "follow up" and "report the result." Nouzari was also told to do this "personally" to "make sure the job is done."
This letter from Ahmadinejad's office was relayed to Amirnazmi the following month, November 2007, by the director of the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, Mostafa Rahmani. He sent it to Amirnazmi along with his own cover letter "in regards to your proposal."
Two months later, Amirnazmi followed up by sending a note to the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. in New York, Mohammad Khazaee. Writing to thank Khazaee for his hospitality at a party the previous evening at the Iranian mission, Amirnazmi said he was attaching a copy of the "the order of His Highness, the President" for "transferring" ChemPlan to Iran. Amirnazmi added that he would be "more than happy" to meet Iran's oil minister and "discuss how to implement the President's order."
The plan gained traction during the first half of 2008, as Amirnazmi shuttled between Philadelphia and Iran. He negotiated with Iranian businesses and officials, hammering out plans potentially worth millions, not only to transfer his Chemplan software system to Iran, but for involvement in other enterprises, such as building factories.
Then, on April 24, 2008, while returning via Paris from a trip to Tehran, Amirnazmi was stopped by customs agents at the Philadelphia airport. They found Iran-related documents in his bags, questioned him, but let him go.
Four days later, Amirnazmi went in person to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington. The next day, he sent the director of the Interests Section, Mostafa Rahmani, a "thank you for yesterday's meeting" and for the "guidance," and asked Rahmani to arrange a "secret meeting" in Iran with Ahmadinejad.
Among the letters that Amirnazmi wrote to Ahmadinejad, there is one, from May 2008, that adds a plaintive note. Helpful though Ahmadinejad had been in telling Iranian officials to ease the way for Amirnazmi's business ventures, red tape was clogging the works. Amirnazmi wrote to the Iranian president that after 18 months of hard work to deliver his ChemPlan system to Iran "based on your instructions," lower level officials had required "four different proposals, numerous phone calls, and unnecessary correspondence, which caused me a security headache." In the letter, Amirnazmi asked for a two-hour private meeting with Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
• Click here to see the letter to Ahmadinejad.
He concluded by praising the Iranian Interests section at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., "under the extraordinary management of Dr. Rahmani," for "its meritorious behavior with the clients and their quick actions."
In June, 2008, returning to Philadelphia via Detroit from a trip to Iran, Amirnazmi was again questioned by U.S. border agents. Soon after that his home and office were searched, yielding a trove of documents. In July, he was arrested.
Rahmani is still running the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, but when FOX News tried to reach him by phone with queries about his role in the Amirnazmi case, an official there said all questions should be directed to the Iranian Mission in New York. The Mission did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Now Amirnazmi is in jail, awaiting his fate. The issue of tougher sanctions against Iran is being hotly debated, and President Ahmadinejad is again visiting New York City to address the U.N. General Assembly.
Invitations have gone out yet again for more of his signature socializing in New York.
What is he planning to ask party-goers this time?
Claudia Rosett is Journalist-in-Residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and writes a weekly column on Foreign Affairs for Forbes.com.