Two Iranian men have been indicted for allegedly hacking a Vermont defense technology firm, but one of their cohorts who admitted guilt won’t be punished because of a pardon President Barack Obama granted last year as part of the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal.
On Monday, the Justice Department announced the indictment of Mohammed Reza Rezakhah, 39, and Mohammed Saeed Ajily, 35, for conspiring to hack South Burlington, Vermont-based Arrow Tech starting in 2007 as part of an effort to allow Iranian companies to use the company’s software in violation of U.S. export controls.
Justice’s press release revealing the charges against Rezakhah and Ajily referred obliquely to "a third actor who has already pleaded guilty in the District of Vermont for related conduct."
However, the indictment identifies that man as Nima Golestaneh. Golestaneh was indicted in U.S, District Court in Vermont in 2013 on similar charges and extradited from Turkey after protracted negotiations with that country.
Golestaneh pled guilty in December 2015 to federal wire fraud and computer hacking charges and was awaiting sentencing when he received the pardon from Obama — one of a series of clemency grants and dropped prosecutions the administration agreed to as part of a broader effort to reach a nuclear agreement and obtain the release of several Americans being held prisoner in Iran.
POLITICO reported earlier this year that the actions Obama took to attempt a rapprochement with Iran angered Justice Department officials and that statements the administration issued at the time downplayed the significance of the cases that were sacrificed as part of the diplomatic initiative.
The new announcement about charges in the Arrow Tech case came on the same day the Trump administration announced its review of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump has sharply criticized.
While the Justice Department statement may appear as a rebuke of Obama’s pardon issued in connection with the same events, the timing of the charges against Rezakhah and Ajily seems to undercut that possibility. The indictment announced Monday was actually returned in April 2016, under the Obama administration. It has been under seal since while law enforcement made efforts to take the men into custody.
Asked why the indictment was unsealed now, a Justice Department official said keeping an indictment under seal for a period then announcing it is "commonplace."
"This practice improves the chances for law enforcement to apprehend the defendants," said the official, who asked not to be named.
A filing prosecutors submitted to a federal judge last week asking to unseal the indictment and related arrest warrants shed little light on the situation, saying simply that the unsealing was appropriate now "because the investigation into the matter has concluded."
The Justice official said the two defendants are believed to be in Iran. Officials have argued in similar cases that while the arrest of the individuals being sought is unlikely, announcing the charges will limit the travel of those charged and serve as a deterrent to others considering similar activity.
Court dockets suggest that Rezakhah or Ajily or others were charged back in 2015 in connection with the same events, but the original filings in the case remain sealed.