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On November 29, 2004, Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan and her ex-husband, Mahmoud Seif, checked into the Le Meridien Hotel in Vienna, Austria. The following morning, Gholikhan used Seif's cell phone to call the man they had flown there to meet. "Alex," a weapons dealer from Fort Lauderdale, told the couple to go to the InterContinental Hotel. His bodyguard would be waiting in the lobby.
Gholikhan, then just 26 years old, stood five feet tall, with brown eyes and olive skin; she could have passed for Greek or Italian. She dressed stylishly, in Western clothes, with makeup and jewelry. When in Iran, she covered her shiny dark hair with a headscarf. Her native language was Persian, but she spoke fluent English in a lilting, musical voice.
Seif, then about 40, didn't speak English at all. His short, thick hair was turning a little gray. He had a medium build, rough skin, and a crooked smile.
Gholikhan maintains that the moment she walked up the steps to the InterContinental on that rainy day, she became accidentally caught up in her shady ex-husband's international plot, an unwitting victim of both Muslim traditions and American politics. Federal authorities have a different theory: She was a slick operative of the Iranian government, and her actions were intentional and designed to put U.S. security at risk.
Seif and Gholikhan met the bodyguard, a quiet, imposing man in a brown suit, near the check-in counter. He led them to the 10th floor and down a long hallway.
Alex opened his room door and greeted the couple in English. He called Gholikhan "Ms. Fahimi." She did not correct him.
After the exchange of pleasantries, talk turned to business. Gholikhan translated between English and Persian for the two men. A payment of $10,500 had already been deposited in Alex's Fort Lauderdale bank account. In return, he was ready to hand over the product: one sample pair of military-grade Generation III, F550 Series night-vision goggles manufactured by New York-based ATT.
The goggles convert photons into electrons, multiply them thousands of times, and then convert them back into photons projected onto a screen. With just a bit of faint starlight, a soldier wearing the goggles in darkness can see as though it's practically daytime. Experts say the coveted Generation III model — commonly called "the Pirate" by U.S. infantrymen — is the second-most-wanted item on foreign spies' wish lists.
There was just one obstacle: It's against U.S. law to export them to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Alex pulled out some yellow documents — an export license and an end-use certificate that permits him to carry the goggles. Without similar paperwork, Seif would have trouble crossing borders.
Gholikhan grabbed the papers. Alex snatched them back. She said, "What do you mean, it's illegal? We can't just put this in our luggage and go home?" Gholikhan claims Seif then muttered in Persian for her to shut up; he'd explain everything later.
The trio discussed the possibility of shipping the goggles via DHL. Ultimately, Seif decided it would be better to drop them at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna. They could be placed in a diplomatic purse, treated as sovereign property, and carried out of Austria undetected.
From a separate hotel room, Special Agent Ron Kriske, a square-jawed, bald-headed officer fighting weapons proliferation for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), secretly watched the meeting on monitors and listened via an audio feed. A translator interpreted the Persian for him. He claims he never recorded the meeting.
After 15 minutes, Seif, Gholikhan, Alex, and "the bodyguard" (in actuality, a German-speaking Austrian agent) made their way out of the hotel to a gray Audi. Seif carried a laptop. Alex opened the trunk and unzipped an Adidas duffle bag. Inside was a smaller green bag. He invited Seif to lean his head into the trunk and peer through the goggles.
Seif accepted the duffle, and the parties said their goodbyes. Seif and Gholikhan were about 10 steps away from the car when teams of policemen jumped out of two vans, guns drawn.
By the time the case finally made it to an American court four years later, Gholikhan had served 28 days in Austria, slipped by extradition attempts in two countries, and surprised everyone involved by voluntarily boarding a plane to Miami and surrendering to federal officials. She claimed to be a victim of her husband's orders. In her own defense, she told a federal jury a tale that sounded like a surreal spy thriller, stretching from Austria to Dubai to China, featuring a cast of mullahs and Muslims and laced with kidnappings, aliases, and abortions. It was either so convoluted it had to be true or else a wild attempt to bluff her way through the court system.
She faced at least 20 years in an American prison, but on this strange tale, Gholikhan — bold yet polite, rebellious but God-fearing — was willing to gamble her freedom.
To understand Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan — and her defense — it's important to understand the backdrop against which her story unfolded.
"I was born a Muslim in Muslim family," Gholikhan wrote in a letter to New Times. (Gholikhan wanted to meet for an interview, but jailers at the Federal Detention Center in Miami forbade it.) She was born December 6, 1977, the middle child in a wealthy family. Her mother was a professor of linguistics at a university in Tehran, her father a civil engineer.