Charges reinstated against man in Iran shipping case Appeals Court rules that embargo is not too vague

December 18, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A U.S. appellate court has reinstated charges against an Iranian-born man who is accuised of trying to ship two sophisticated gas chromatographs from a Columbia company to Iran in violation of a 1995 trade embargo.

The unanimous opinion, issued Tuesday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., found that U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson erred when he dismissed the charges against businessman Mohammad Reza Ehsan of San Ramon, Calif., as overly vague.

Ehsan, 48, was arrested in November 1996 and charged with violating an executive order that President Clinton issued the year before, banning virtually all trade with Iran after concluding that its policies constituted "an unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security.

Prosecutors claimed Ehsan had purchased two of the machines, which are used to monitor the quality of oil in large electrical transformers, for $60,000 from a Columbia-based company, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc. After receiving a tip from a Shimadzu employee, federal customs agents began to monitor Ehsan's phone conversations. In some, Ehsan said he hoped to avoid detection by transshipping the machines to Iran through Dubai, United Arab Emirates, according to the indictment.

When a Dubai trading company opened the shipping crates upon delivery, they contained bricks that U.S. Customs agents had placed there. In addition to being indicted on counts of violating the embargo and regulations pertaining to it, Ehsan was charged with conspiracy and making false statements to federal agents.

In hearings before Nickerson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew G. W. Norman argued that the shipment of the chromatographs was of particular significance to the United States because they would help Iran assess the operational well-being of its power stations.

But Ehsan's lawyer, Joshua R. Treem, argued that the embargo was ambiguous and lacked meaning because goods from large U.S. corporations in Europe regularly found their way to Iran. Nickerson dismissed two counts of the indictment.

But the appellate court had another view. "Although Ehsan labors mightily to manufacture a textual ambiguity, his reading of the regulations is not a reasonable one," Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the panel.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning said the decision would aid enforcement of Clinton's order. "We view this case as being a significant and important case," he said. "We're serious about the embargo."

Ehsan's attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment on the decision.

The ruling paves the way for a trial date to be set for Ehsan after the appellate court issues a formal order. If convicted, he could receive 41 to 51 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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