MANHATTAN (CN) — In a Persian tale unfolding in Manhattan Federal Court on Monday, a jury weighed two depictions of a dual U.S.-Iranian national — one as a greedy arms smuggler and the other as a cunning dissident.
On Oct. 12, 2012, Reza Olangian flew to Estonia for a meeting with a Russian supplier offering to arrange the transfer of at least 200 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.
The 56-year-old engineer would learn upon his arrest that the supplier had been a Drug Enforcement Agency informant working with the agency's then-nascent unit aimed at curbing international arms smuggling.
In March of 2013 — months after his arrest — the U.S. government won Olangian's extradition to New York to face trial on four charges involving weapons conspiracies and sanctions violations.
As his trial kicked off Monday afternoon, U.S. prosecutors told a jury that Olangian's motivations had been as simple as they were seedy.
"He was so eager to make money that he was willing to sell anything to anyone," Assistant U.S. Attorney Shane Stansbury said.
Olangian's attorney Lee Alan Ginsberg, from the Manhattan-based firm Freeman, Nooter & Ginsberg, painted a more complicated motivation for his client, telling a tale of family, revenge and political intrigue.
In Ginsberg's narrative, Olangian had been an Iranian dissident dating back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and his brother and mother had been tortured and killed by Iran's theocratic government.
Obtaining a graduate degree in engineering in the United States, Olangian says he planted his roots here through his career, marriage and two children, but his political ideals always pulled him back toward his homeland.
"Always in his life there was a tug back to Iran to do something about how that government was operating," Ginsberg said.
The attorney said that Olangian's political convictions dissolved one of his marriages, drew him back to his native country to demonstrate for a more democratic government, and ultimately, walked him headlong into a DEA sting operation.
But, Ginsberg insisted, his client's plan always had been to bait Iranian officials into illegality and expose them to the world.
"You may be sitting there thinking, 'That's pretty far-fetched,'" the attorney acknowledged to the jury.
Trying to suspend that disbelief, Ginsberg argued that the story only seems outlandish to those living in a democratic country, where such drastic measures are not necessary for the average citizen's voice to be heard.
Despite quibbling over motivations, Olangian's actions are largely uncontested.
The DEA informant recorded his Skype and in-person discussions with the suspect, and prosecutors obtained his emails with Iranian government officials. Prosecutors told the jury they would show it records describing the logistics of how the arms and aircraft-component shipments could avoid U.S. sanctions.
"He was caught in the act, and he was caught on tape," prosecutor Stansbury said.
With so much evidence against his client, Ginsberg encouraged jurors to keep an open mind, in a speech steeped with stirring references to the Constitution and Tuesday's Election Day.
"There is no more sacred obligation [than jury service], but perhaps, your obligation tomorrow to vote," he said.
The jurors will have an opportunity to exercise that right Tuesday, as proceedings will pause for the presidential contest before resuming on Wednesday.
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