Chinese man sentenced in Boston for role in Iran nuke plot, Iranian co-organizer goes free

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BOSTON – A Chinese national who facilitated the sale of nuclear technology to Iran will spend almost a decade in jail while his Iranian accomplice roams free as part of a deal between the governments of the United States and Iran.

Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Patti B. Saris on Wednesday sentenced Sihai Cheng, who pleaded guilty last month to facilitating the sale of technology used to produced weapons-grade uranium to Iran, to nine years in federal prison.

The charges against Cheng’s accomplice, Iranian national Seyed Abolfazi Shahab Jamili, were dismissed last week at the request of the government.  In its motion seeking dismissal of the charges against Jamili, the government cited “significant foreign policy interests.”

According to the original indictment, Jamili and Cheng together procured highly-sophisticated pressure-monitoring sensors used in gas centrifuges from MKS Instruments of Andover for use in Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, actions which violated U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the White House had announced clemency for seven Iranians who were convicted or facing trial in the United States as part of a prisoner exchange with Iran.  The Obama administration also removed Interpol detention requests and charges against 14 Iranians overseas. In exchange, Iran released five Americans detained in Iranian prisons.

Although US officials had previously denied any connection between the prisoner negotiations and the Iranian nuclear agreement inked last summer, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry admitted in announcing the release of American prisoners from Iran that the nuclear agreement had “accelerated” the pace of the prisoner swap negotiations.

The United States announced the completion of the prisoner swap deal on Jan. 16, the same day as the landmark nuclear agreement went into effect.

Cheng’s attorney Steven Weymouth told the court on Wednesday that he would have filed a motion to dismiss his client’s charges had he known that President Obama planned to let Jamili go free.

Prosecutors argued that efforts to apprehend Jamili would have been fruitless, however, as he has not set foot outside Iran since his indictment. Iran earlier refused to honor an extradition request.

“The government did this because they were ordered by Washington, DC,” Weymouth said at the beginning of a sentencing process that lasted more than six hours.

“If the government says Jamili is not a terrorist then they can’t say Mr. Cheng is. The government can’t have it both ways.”

But Judge Saris, who acknowledged that Jamili deserved blame, nevertheless countered that evidence proved Cheng “was intentionally trying to help Iran create a nuclear weapons program.”

Assistant US Attorney Stephanie Siegmann repeatedly pointed to an online instant message conversation from 2010 that shows Cheng urging Jamili to act fast on a proposed transaction.

“Time is important, not only for you, for me, for your end user, but also for your nation,” Cheng told Jamili. “I personally believe THE WAR WILL BREAK OUT IN 2 YEARS and that will be the start of WORLD WAR THREE.”

Saris said the totality of the evidence pointed to Jamili and Cheng as being “equal partners” and referenced the online messages, noting that Cheng “talked about World War III.”

More than three hours into sentencing hearing, Cheng raised his hand and asked the judge if he could make a statement.

Saris allowed Cheng to address the court.

Cheng then proceeded speak in great detail about his rural upbringing in China. In an off-the-cuff statement that spanned nearly an hour, Cheng talked about growing up in poverty and being the only child in his village to be admitted to college. Cheng said he attended school in Shanghai and later embarked on a career in international trade.

“In this world a lot of things might not look appear to be what they look like,” Cheng said. “On appearance, it seems I hate the United States, but that is not a fact.”

Cheng claimed he spoke to Jamili about war and nationalism in order to cajole him into agreeing to the deal. Cheng added that after he met Jamili and listened to his anti-American views, he decided that the best way to complete the sale was to appease Jamili’s anti-American sensibilities.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Cheng is naive about the realities of the world,” Weymouth said. “His primary motivation was money.”

Court records show that authorities caught Cheng in 2014 when he flew to London to attend a soccer game. Weymouth said Cheng was unaware he was being pursued.

Prosecutors have said that MKS, the company responsible for manufacturing the devices, was not culpable in the smuggling plot. MKS has a separate office in Shanghai.

According to the government’s expert witness, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, Iranian officials used the transducers procured by Cheng and Jamili at the Kalaye Electric Company, a government wing that the International Atomic Energy Agency has determined is involved in developing weapons-grade uranium.

“In my opinion, he (Cheng) was highly aware that these things were illegal,” Albright said, referencing the transducers.

Despite the government’s assertion that MKS Instruments played no role in the scheme, Albright testified that another smuggler inside MKS’s Shanghai operation illegally exported $6.5 million worth of transducers to an unidentified buyer. Siegmann also testified that several unindicted conspirators in the Cheng plot also work for MKS Shanghai.

The activity at MKS’s Shanghai branch, which deals primarily with the solar energy industry, caught Saris’s attention.

“A concern I have is MKS Shanghai — they had a pre-arranged organization that set up fronts for all these sorts of things,” Saris said. “They had this system already in place. They basically told them (Cheng and Jamili) how to do it, how to set up a front.”

Although Saris did not sentence Cheng to 15-years requested by prosecutors, the nine-year sentence for Cheng caught Weymouth by surprise.

Asked if he believed the sentence would act as a deterrent to future buyers, as Saris cited in levying the punishment, Weymouth expressed doubt.

“There’s still a market out there,” Weymouth said. “I don’t think this will have any effect.”