Two Atlanta defense attorneys say they’re puzzled by the federal government’s decision to prosecute an Iranian professor renowned for stem cell research and two of his former students for alleged trade sanction violations over eight vials of human growth hormone.
They are equally troubled by the circumstances that prompted federal authorities to secretly indict Dr. Masoud Soleimani last year, and a decision to cancel his research visa while he was already en route from Iran to Minnesota to work at the Mayo Clinic. Federal authorities took him into custody when he landed in the U.S. in October.
Since then, Soleimani—a professor and biomedical researcher at the University of Tehran— has been held in Atlanta without bond, said his Atlanta attorney, Leonard Franco.
The hormone—a form of synthetic protein—was seized from one of Soleimani’s former students in 2016 by customs authorities in Atlanta. The seizure took place at a time when the U.S. was still a party to the international nuclear accords with Iran and sanctions against the Middle Eastern nation had been eased.
“I truly don’t understand it,” Franco said of the government’s decision to prosecute. Looking at the case in a light most favorable to the government, Franco said it appears to be “some type of policy argument.”
The growth hormone is not banned in the U.S. or Iran and was being used exclusively for medical research, which is still considered largely exempt from sanctions, Franco said.
Two of Soleimani’s former students—Mahboobe Ghaedi and Maryam Jazayeri—face similar federal charges for attempting to supply Soleimani with the growth hormone.
Ghaedi is a permanent U.S. resident and an assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine, whose lung regeneration research has resulted in a functioning transplantable lung, according to court records. She is free on a $250,000 bond.
Jazayeri is a naturalized U.S. citizen and Kentucky resident who has conducted medical research at the University of Louisville, court records say. She is currently free on a $200,000 bond.
Motions to dismiss the charges are pending in federal court in Atlanta in front of U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross. Federal prosecutors in Atlanta have not yet responded to the motions. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak declined to comment.
Ghaedi’s counsel, Atlanta attorney Joe Whitley, wouldn’t comment on the case. Whitley, a partner at the Atlanta offices of Baker Donalson, is former general counsel to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has twice served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia.
But in a motion to dismiss, Whitley contended the human growth hormone was permissible to send to Iran without an export license between April 7, 2014, to Dec. 22, 2016. Whitley also argued the growth hormone is a biological material intended for medical research that is exempt from sanctions.
On Friday, Whitley filed a motion to sever Ghaedi’s case because the government’s disclosure “reflect a lengthy, in-depth investigation involving individuals other than Dr. Ghaedi” even though “all defendants are in accord” that the alleged conduct “is actually lawful.”
Atlanta attorney Page Pate, who represents Jazayeri, said his client is “completely confused by all this.” When customs authorities removed the vials from her luggage at the Atlanta airport in 2016, Pate said Jazayeri didn’t think she had done anything illegal.
Jazayeri was heading to Iran to visit family, and received the vial from Ghaedi to take to Soleimani. Customs officials in Atlanta discovered the vials when they detained Jazayeri to question her about her travel plans before she boarded a connecting flight to Iran, Pate said in his motion to dismiss the charges.
Even the FBI reported it could “find no nefarious purpose” behind Soleimani’s request, Pate said. “This is not the intent of sanctions—to prevent a former student from delivering medicine to a former professor,” he said.
Pate said that in September 2016, “The landscape for sanctions against Iran was markedly different.”
“When the growth factors in this case were seized, the United States was moving forward with … the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. “While the United States has since pulled out of this agreement, the agreement specifically obligated the United States to lift certain sanctions against Iran at the time. … In fact, Dr. Jazayeri expressed to agents that she was unsure of the current state of U.S. sanctions against Iran.”
Seventeen months later, on Feb. 13, 2018, customs agents detained Jazayeri again in Atlanta when she was headed to Iran. Pate said she was searched and questioned at length about the 2016 seizure and the intended recipient.
On Nov. 5, 2018, Jazayeri was detained a third time while transferring planes in Atlanta—the same day the Trump administration reinstated sanctions against Iran. She was questioned about her relationship to Soleimani and Ghaedi, and then arrested over an alleged sanctions violation that was by then more than two years old, Pate said.
“Jazayeri was initially informed of her Miranda rights and told she did not have to talk, but that doing so ‘goes a long way’ and could be beneficial,” the lawyer said in his dismissal motion.
At least once during that interview, Jazayeri said she wanted a lawyer, Pate said. “In response, the agents gave her conflicting information about her right to have an attorney present,” he said.
Agents also told Jazayeri that items could be taken to Iran as gifts or for personal use, but not for a business purpose, Pate said. “Dr. Jazayeri believed the growth factors were for a medical purpose and did not know she could not take them to Iran,” he said.
When Jazayeri was arrested, Soleimani was already in jail in Atlanta, charged with aiding and abetting a sanctions violation. Pak, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta, secured Soleimani’s indictment on June 12, 2018—just a month after President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
At the time, Pak asked the court to seal the indictment because Soleimani was living in Iran. But the U.S. attorney said federal authorities had learned that Soleimani was planning a visit to the U.S.
“If the indictment is made public prior to the anticipated travel, Mr. Soleimani will likely abort his plans,” Pak argued. “Sealing the document will, therefore, provide the government an opportunity to effectuate his arrest outside his home country.”
Franco said that Soleimani’s treatment by federal authorities, the revocation of his visa and the decision to detain him without bond doesn’t square with Soleimani’s international reputation as a scholar, professor, and doctor widely known in the field of stem cell research and regenerative medicine. Soleimani has no criminal history anywhere in the world, he added.
“If you ask me what’s motivating the case, I don’t know,” Franco said. “We are not attributing any ill will by federal government. We not contending they are doing something outside the law.” But, he added, “This is all happening against a backdrop of increasing tensions between Iran and the U.S. That doesn’t help us at all.”