GREENBELT — The case against an Iranian-American man accused of helping Iran launch its first satellite may sound like a James Bond movie but it’s a real life drama, a prosecutor said Tuesday as trial opened.
Nader Modanlo, 52, is accused of brokering a deal to help Iran launch the earth observation satellite from Russia. Prosecutors say the Maryland resident violated a trade embargo the United States has had against the Middle Eastern country since the mid-1990s and that he was paid $10 million for his assistance.
“The case you’re about to hear is not a movie script,” prosecutor David Salem told jurors in opening statements Tuesday in federal court in Greenbelt.
Salem said Modanlo knew about the trade embargo but was in financial trouble. He said helping the Iranians was a “Hail Mary pass.” Salem also acknowledged that the case is not a simple one, not a bank robbery case caught on camera, and involves many documents.
But a defense attorney for Modanlo said in his own opening statement that the allegations are baseless and have been a nightmare for a man who came to the United States to study and stayed to pursue the American dream.
Douglas Miller, a public defender representing Modanlo, said his client — a father of two — has been hounded by an “enormous, intrusive, life-destroying investigation” that ultimately failed.
“After an investigation of this length and this size and this scope wouldn’t you expect to see more than what you’re going to see?” he said. “Because in fact what you’ll see is that the government’s case is just smoke, mirrors, innuendo and guilt by association.”
Miller said the government would ask jurors to “connect the dots” between disconnected facts and events. He said there was nothing improper about any of the money Modanlo received.
The United States has had a trade embargo against Iran since 1995. Regulations resulting from the embargo prohibit Americans from supplying goods, technology or services to Iran.
Modanlo’s trial is expected to last four to six weeks. He faces decades in prison if convicted of all eleven charges against him.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys can agree on some facts. They agree Modanlo moved to the United States from Iran to attend George Washington University. In the early 1990s, he and a partner created Final Analysis, Inc., a Maryland company that worked with the Russian government to launch telecommunications satellites. The company went into bankruptcy in 2001.
In 2010, federal prosecutors indicted Modanlo on charges of helping Iran’s space program. Specifically, they say he acted as a middleman in brokering an agreement between Iran and POLYOT, an aerospace enterprise owned by the Russian government, that resulted in the 2005 launch from Russia of an Iranian satellite, Sina-1. The launch of the 350-pound satellite, which is likely no longer functioning, marked the practical beginning of Iran’s space program after decades of aspirations.
The 2005 launch came a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then newly elected, said Israel must be “wiped off the map.” To many, the launch seemed to back up this threat.
Iran has since said it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation, improve telecommunications and expand military surveillance in the region.