The harrowing tale of an Iranian scientist who got sent to a US prison for refusing to spy for the FBI

In June 2020, the United States government deported an Iranian scientist named Sirous Asgari, after several months of coping with COVID-19 in prison while getting shuffled around by ICE.

That's the "happy" ending to an even bleaker tale that began in 2017, when Asgari and his wife came over to the US to visit their children, who were living here. The New Yorker has a fantastic longform article that covers the entire harrowing ordeal, which begins like this:

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 America's 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.


But when the Asgaris stepped off the jet bridge at J.F.K. two officials accosted them.


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.

Spoiler alert: very little evidence was ever presented to support the accusations of spy craft against Asgari. Rather, it seems that the FBI wanted to use Asgari as a spy of their own. And when he refused to cooperate—it's hard to flip someone with a plea bargain when they refuse to acknowledge your wild accusations against them—they threw him in prison. Where the mild-mannered scientists story gets even more interesting, as the FBI continues trying to prove their case.

The Man Who Refused to Spy [Laura Secor / The New Yorker]

Iranian scientist acquitted of stealing research deported by US [BBC News]

FBI agent misled magistrate judge to obtain search warrant in trade secrets case, federal judge says [Eric Heisig / AP News]

This ICE Detainee Caught Coronavirus After Asking to Be Released. A Judge Says He Still Shouldn't Be Let Go [Yeganeh Torbati / ProPublica]

Image: Public Domain via FBI/Wikimedia Commons