Nader Modanlo, a prisoner in federal prison was facing five more years behind bars, when he got an offer from the US with President Barack Obama to lessen his sentence as part of this month’s historic and then prisoner swap him with Iran, but he had declined to accept the offer.
US officials dropped a claim that a Maryland jury found the Iranian aerospace engineer had taken an illegal payment of $10 million from Iran, according to an interview with Modanlo, lawyers and US officials.
A critical observation of how the Obama administration grappled a prisoner deal and surrendered the claim has drawn criticism from Republican presidential candidates and politicians.
A spokesman from the Justice Department declined to comment on discussions over the $10 million which the jury said that Modanlo was paid to help Iran launch its first satellite in 2005. Modanlo denied all claims saying the money was a loan for a telecommunication deal.
The prisoner swap was a deal for five imprisoned Americans held in Iran to be granted pardons at the same time as seven Iranians charged in the United States to have their sentences commuted. The deal occurred together with the implementation of an agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
Modanlo said he didn’t budge at the offer at first and wanted a chance to clear his name in court. “I was mostly disappointed that I have to give up my right to appeal,” Modanlo told Reuters in one of his interviews after being released.
“If they believe in their justice system why would they deprive me of it? Let them prove me wrong.”
As part of the agreement, all Iranian prisoners had to renounce claims against the US as well as their right to appeal.
The secret deal with Iran had been negotiated for months by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart with Modanlo’s disinclination to accept Obama’s offer becoming a last minute complication.
The offer of pardon was only accepted by Modanlo on January 16 as the clock ticked towards what US officials said was the final deadline, according to Modanlo and US officials.
Modanlo’s release, the next day, marked an abrupt conclusion to his case after a slow and long investigation into Modanlo’s role in brokering Iran’s acces to space technology. Evidence was pursued by federal agents from Washington, Switzerland and Russia.
Modanlo was reported as the only inmate that declined Obama’s offer and he was also the one serving the longest sentence of any of the other six Iranians.
Modanlo stated that he will find it hard after two years in prison saying this cloud will be over his head forever.
Modanlo’s American Dream
Modanlo grew up in northern Iran and remembers watching the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 that inspired him to become a space engineer.
After moving to the US decades later, Modanlo had become a space entrepreneur with a company valued over $500 million.
Modanlo played a role in helping the launch of an American satellite from a Russian rocket in 1995 with his company focusing on the emerging field of low-orbit satellites for data services.
The company was driven into bankruptcy in 2001 which lead to Modanlo being sued by a former partner who accused him of selling missile technology to Iran.
US authorities received assistance from Switzerland and seized a truck load of documents along with 120 computer hard drives, but no evidence was found to support the claim.
“They knew this was false. They knew I had no missile technology,” he said.
The investigation allegedly uncovered documents prosecutors say showed Modanlo brokered a deal between Iran and Russia to launch the satellite in exchange for a $10 million fee, which lead to a Maryland jury convicting him of sanctions violations after a six-week trial. He was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
Modanlo’s lawyers argued that private communications between the trial judge and prosecutors had excluded evidence that could have changed the outcome.