In the spring of 2017, an Iranian materials scientist named Sirous Asgari received a call from the United States consulate in Dubai. Two years earlier, he and his wife, Fatemeh, had applied for visas to visit America, where their children lived. The consulate informed him that their requests had finally been approved. The timing was strange: President Donald Trump had just issued an executive order banning Iranians from entering the U.S. on the very kind of visa that Asgari and his wife were granted. Maybe applications filed before the visa ban had been grandfathered through, or some career State Department official wanted to give families like his a last chance to reunite.
Asgari, who was then fifty-six years old, considered the U.S. a second home. In the nineties, he had attended graduate school at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and he came to like Americas commonsense efficiency. His daughter Sara was born in the U.S., making her an American citizen. His two older children, Mohammad and Zahra, had attended American universities and stayed on. Asgari was now a professor at Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran, and former graduate students of his worked in top American laboratories; his scientific research, on metallurgy, sometimes took him to Cleveland, where he had close colleagues at Case Western Reserve University.
Asgari and Fatemeh boarded a flight to New York on June 21, 2017. They planned to see Mohammad, who lived in the city, and then proceed to California, where they would visit Zahra and meet the man she had married. But when the Asgaris stepped off the jet bridge at J.F.K. two officials accosted them.
The officials whisked the Asgaris into a room, where a phalanx of F.B.I. agents awaited them. Asgari was under arrest, the agents told him, accused of serious charges in a sealed indictment whose contents they couldnt reveal at the airport. He could go with them to a hotel and look over the indictment, or he could go to a local detention center, and then be transferred to Cleveland, for an arraignment. In the turmoil of the moment, he barely registered that nobody had stamped his visa or returned his passport.
Asgari was fluent in English, but the word indictment was new to him. Hed never had a problem with the law. He was a high-spirited man accustomed to middle-class comforts, a professors lectern, and an easy repartee with people in authority. Surely, he figured, he was the subject of some misunderstanding, and so he would go to the hotel and quickly clear it up.
At the hotel, the agents handed Asgari a twelve-page indictment. It charged him with theft of trade secrets, visa fraud, and eleven counts of wire fraud. To Asgari, the indictment read like a spy thriller. It centered on a four-month visit that he had made to Case Western four years earlier, which the document presented as part of a scheme to defraud an American valve manufacturer of its intellectual property in order to benefit the Iranian government. The punishment, the agents made clear, could be many years in prison. Their evidence had been gathered from five years of wiretaps, which had swept up his e-mails before, during, and after the visit in question.
The charges were nonsense, Asgari said. The processes hed studied at Case Western were well known to materials scientiststhey were hardly trade secrets. If the government really meant to prosecute him, it would inevitably lose in court.
We havent lost a case, one agent told Asgari.
This will be your first, he replied.
Asgari didnt realize it, but a vise was closing around him. He had never seen his visits to America through the prism of its tensions with Iran. Science is wild and has no homeland, an Iranian philosopher had once said, and Asgari believed this to be so. His scientific community spanned the globe, its instruments and findings universally accessible. That national boundaries and political intrigue should interfere with intellectual exchange seemed to him unnatural. He had confidence in the capacity of cool rationality to set matters right.
If he could just make the F.B.I. agents understand the science, Asgari told himself, they would see their mistake. He described the relationships and the laboratory equipment that had attracted him to Case Western, and explained how the properties of a material emanated from the arrangement of its atoms, and could be altered by engineers who understood that structure. But even as he talked he began to have a sinking feeling that an indictment was not something he could dissipate with words.
That night, Fatemeh went home with Mohammad, and two guards stayed in Asgaris hotel room as he slept. In the morning, the agents drove Asgari to Cleveland, his wife and son following behind.
He was arraigned at the federal courthouse and delivered to the Lake County Adult Detention Facility, a maximum-security jail in Painesville, Ohio. For the first of the seventy-two days he would spend in that facility, Asgari occupied an isolated cell. Lying on his bed, he could hear other inmates screaming.
The F.B.I. had reason to be interested in a man like Asgari. Sharif University was Irans premier technical institution, and the instruments and insights of materials science could be used to build missiles and centrifuges as easily as to improve the iPhone or to better understand the properties of a gem. Asgaris concerns fell squarely on the civilian side of the line. I never intentionally worked for destructive purposes, he told me, during a series of conversations that began in 2018. If you have a pen, you can write a love letter, or you can write instructions for making a bomb. Thats not a problem with the pen.
Asgaris career was a love letter to the atom. He was dazzled the first time he discerned one with the aid of a transmission electron microscope, or TEM: within the seemingly inert surfaces of objects was a kaleidoscope of churning activity. Atoms cannot be seen with an ordinary optical microscope. A TEMwhich is about twice the size of an industrial refrigeratoris expensive, and so sensitive that it must be shielded from light, heat, cold, dust, the imperceptible shifting of buildings in wind, and the noise of distant galaxies.
Asgari was in charge of a TEM that Sharif acquired in 1994. He ran an lite research team of Ph.D. students and adored teaching. Compact and clean-cut, with a heart-shaped face and wire-rimmed glasses, he spoke at volume, often insistently, with a charisma that occasionally verged on overbearing.
Professors at Sharif supplemented their salaries and financed their departments with industrial and government contracts. Asgari had one with Irans energy ministry, assessing and extending the longevity of gas-turbine parts; he was also conducting a feasibility study for a state-owned mining company, which was looking into producing high-performance, heat-resistant metals known as superalloys. The two contracts brought the university some four hundred thousand dollars, which helped support the work of Asgari and his students.
International sanctions had long been a fact of life in Iran. In the twenty-tens, in the run-up to nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, the restrictions tightened: nothing that could be classified as dual use, or applicable to both military and civilian realms, could be imported to Iran. Materials science straddled that line almost by definition.
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