Jailed ex-Marine becomes pawn in escalating fight between Iran, US

A former U.S. Marine who has been sentenced to death by Iran for allegedly spying for the CIA is caught in the middle of increasing hostilities between Iran and the United States.

Amir Hekmati, an American-Iranian who was arrested in the summer, was given a death sentence in Iranian court on Monday, in the midst of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil waterway.

Two days later, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in a car bombing, further inflaming relations and bringing calls for retaliation from Iranian media. Senior U.S. officials firmly denied any involvement.

Iran has jailed U.S. citizens before — including three students in 2009 accused of being spies after they were arrested hiking along the Iran-Iraq border — but Hekmati’s death sentence, coming amid a war of words with the U.S., raises the stakes.  Iran considers Hekmati an Iranian because they don’t recognize dual citizenship.

Military analysts say Iran is using Hekmati as a bargaining chip against the U.S. and European allies who are poised to impose punishing economic sanctions against the country.

Iran has amped up its rhetoric in response to the sanctions, threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and warning U.S. ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf. Iran also announced it would move uranium operations underground.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the timing of Hekmati’s sentence was not likely coincidental, as Iran had painted itself into a corner by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz when the U.S. called the bluff.

“They were in a position where they were going to be embarrassed if they backed down,” said Rubin. “By handing down the death sentence when they did, they can in effect demonstrate their own bluster and strength to their people, and at the same time try to depict the U.S. as impotent and weak.”

The State Department condemned Hekmati’s death sentence and said he’s been falsely accused. Hekmati’s mother, Behnaz Hekmati, said that her son was in Iran visiting relatives for the first time.

“Amir is not a criminal. His very life is being exploited for political gain," she wrote in an email to the Associated Press. “We pray that Iran will show compassion and not murder our son.”

Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, works at a New York-based video game company that specializes in war games, according to the AP.

In Michigan, where Hekmati’s family lives, Sens. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.) and Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowVulnerable Senate Dems have big cash advantages Senators push HHS to negotiate lower prices on opioid overdose reversal drug Senators press administration on mental health parity MORE (D-Mich.) joined the State Department in condemning the sentence.

“Iran has a history of falsely accusing Americans of being spies, and this new action by the Iranian government only further escalates tensions and isolates them from other countries,” Stabenow said in a statement.

The assassination of the nuclear scientist on Wednesday could complicate efforts to get Hekmati’s death sentence revoked.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, and the CIA of carrying out the attack, despite the U.S. categorically denying any involvement. Israel has not issued such strong denials.

"This cowardly assassination, the perpetrators of which will never dare to admit or accept responsibility for it, like other acts of the international state terrorism, has been planned by the services of the CIA and the Mossad,” Khamenei said Thursday, according to a translation from an Iranian student news source.

The disputes all stem from one thing, analysts say: Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. and other Western allies say Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, though Iran insists its nuclear sites are only working to produce energy.

“The primary thing driving tensions is Iran’s continued progress on its nuclear program,” said Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon adviser and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “These things are really more an effect of the impending standoff than a cause.”

Kroenig said there are several scenarios where tensions with Iran could escalate into a military conflict. While Iran’s threat to close the strait has died down somewhat, he said, its continued progress enriching uranium could prompt either the U.S. or Israel to launch an attack.

The other scenario is if the economic and political pressure from sanctions becomes so great that Iran does actually follow through and try to close the strait, Kroenig said.

Iran’s domestic issues are also at work in the country’s posturing, as parliamentary elections are being held this spring — the first major elections since the contested 2009 presidential election.

Rubin said the disputes with the West are a useful way to distract Iranians from the country’s economic problems. 

“If you’re in trouble at home,” Rubin said, “try to rally people around the flag, try to make a national issue out of it.”