The Agent from Iran

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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.

Gholikhan was only a year old when the Iranian Revolution brought Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini to power. The United States prohibited all exports to Iran to protest human rights abuses overseen by Khomeini.

Gholikhan grew up under the Ayatollah's hard-line policies and enforcement of conservative cultural mores, including the requirement that women must obey their fathers and husbands. Females are encouraged to wear headscarves but often flaunt makeup and tight-fitting outfits. Sexual urges are accommodated by "temporary marriage" — an arrangement that can be set to expire after as little as an hour. Men can have multiple wives.

Gholikhan's family members were faithful Muslims who prayed five times a day but weren't radical. Her grandmother instilled in her harsh lessons about Islam. "If a stranger man would ever see only one hair of yours," her grandmother would say, "you are going to be hanged in Hell forever and ever with only that one hair, because you sinned!" She says that, as a child, she was scared to even touch a Qur'an. She pestered her family by constantly challenging the rules.

"The number of my questions always drove my grandma nuts. Her last answer to me was, 'Dear Naughty Shahrzad, I don't know how to answer your questions, but this is how it is written in the book. Pray to God and ask him to send you an answer in your dreams.'

"For which, I did it, and glory to him for answering all."

In the mid-Nineties, when Gholikhan was still in her teens, her family arranged her marriage to a virtual stranger. Gholikhan gave birth to twin daughters, Melika and Melina. Her husband was kind, but she says he used drugs, so she divorced him.

In February 2000, Gholikhan went to a caterer to buy food for her girls' third birthday party. She noticed an intimidating patron at the counter, one of the ultrareligious, mullah types she resented. She shouted at the caterer, half-teasing, half-threatening to take her business elsewhere if he was going to serve men like that.

The man at the counter — Mahmoud Seif — must have interpreted her mocking as flirtation. He contacted Gholikhan's father. Within two weeks, she was his wife. "Imagine," she wrote, "I was kicking him out of window, he was coming in from door. I was closing all doors, he was coming out of the sink!"

Shortly afterward, the couple moved to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. A booming city and the financial capital of the Persian Gulf, Dubai offered a more liberal lifestyle. There young people go dancing, alcohol flows freely in hotels, and women can wear bathing suits — although religious police might warn men against looking. Gholikhan attended a Dubai university and earned an MBA. She took English courses and established a TV and advertising agency called Twins Group. "I was not even paying attention to politics in Iran," she would later testify.

Seif, meanwhile, lived mostly in Tehran but came every few weeks to Dubai. He did business in both cities. Gholikhan knew he had been a military officer in his youth, but now he operated several companies, including one called Noor-al-Fath General Trading Co. He sold copiers and fax machines.

Gholikhan says she was happy about the long-distance arrangement — she wanted to "get away from those people with their mullah-ful idea and words!" She concentrated on raising her children.

Gholikhan says that between 2000 and 2004, she had a host of marital problems with Seif. He was abusive, she claims. She vacillated between fighting him tooth and nail or simply, when she wore herself out, submitting to his will. At one point, she said, she had a heart attack because of the stress. "It was like, you know, Tom and Jerry," she testified, referring to the cartoon.

Gholikhan's path to that hotel in Vienna began with an e-mail. It was sent June 24, 2002, to an arms dealer identified in court papers simply as "Alex." The dealer brokers high-tech security items from his office in Fort Lauderdale, and that day, he got an e-mail from a man named Hamid Reza Kargar. The e-mail inquired in English about obtaining 500 units of Generation III night-vision goggles. Kargar made no attempt to disguise the equipment's final destination. Kargar's client — Seif — served the Iranian government.

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Deirdra Funcheon