'Hostage' for six years: Iranian diplomat stung by US agents

Academic faces extradition for buying night-vision goggles

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It's a case the Government would rather went away. It involves diplomatic brinkmanship, backroom deals – and a US sting operation in London involving a secretly filmed arms deal.

The US claims a former high-ranking Iranian diplomat turned engineering scholar was caught on camera organising the illicit shipment of military hardware to Iran and wants to put him on trial. The ex-diplomat, Nosratollah Tajik, claims he is the fall-guy in the battle between the US and Iran over his country's nuclear ambitions.

But next week the case is set to continue a long-standing problem for British diplomacy and spark a new dispute over extradition to the US.

In a rare interview with The Independent, Mr Tajik claimed he had been held "hostage" in Britain for six years as he fought against being sent to stand trial in the US for allegedly breaking export rules by buying night-vision goggles from an undercover US agent.

If he is extradited, the case is likely to worsen Britain's relations with Iran, which went into deep freeze following the removal of diplomats after the British embassy compound in Tehran was attacked by protesters in November last year. The 58-year-old goes to court on 30 October to claim that he has heart and other health problems which mean he cannot face trial in the US, where he faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. He claims his medical arguments have been ignored, in contrast with the case of Gary McKinnon who won his 10-year battle last week on health grounds.

Papers lodged at a US court claim Mr Tajik met undercover agents at a London office suite and examined night-vision equipment before arranging delivery and telling them to falsify invoices. Mr Tajik, who had been working as an academic in Durham studying the effect of cold on concrete, does not deny trying to buy the goggles but said he was acting as a middle-man for a student who needed them for research in Iran.

He insisted the goods should come from the Netherlands to ensure it was a legal deal. "My involvement was simply as a help to an Iranian student," he said. "I told him I would do nothing illegal. This is politically motivated for the US, they need information about other things."

Former Home Secretary John Reid agreed his extradition in 2007, but US diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks highlighted British nervousness if he were to be sent to the US to stand trial. The arrest of Mr Tajik was described as a "significant bilateral irritant" with Iranian officials "unusually vehement" about developments in the case, according to the cables.

One cable sent from America's London embassy in June 2008 cited comments by a senior Foreign Office official claiming that "Iran made non-specific threats of reprisals against the UK should Tajik be extradited".

Ali Ansari, a Professor of Iranian history at St Andrew University, said: "If they extradite him, it will add yet another bone of contention. Certainly the British would be quite happy for this to go away. It's another distraction for what the core of the issue is – the nuclear issue."

Mr Tajik, a former ambassador to Jordan, first appealed against the decision on health grounds in 2008. The Home Secretary took more than three years to turn down the request until the Foreign Office sought assurances from the US that they still wanted him. Mr Tajik, whose wife and two sons are also in the UK, has remained on an electronic tag subject to a night-time curfew at his west London flat.

One US dispatch from its London embassy in September, headlined "Tajik extradition – UK dithering, may have cold feet", warned of a backlash including possible state-sponsored street violence. "Contacts also note few things short of war are more likely to prompt an extreme reaction from hardliners than a [successful] foreign targeting, legal or otherwise, of a member of one of Tehran's inner circle," said the wire.

Mr Tajik told The Independent that the consequences of his extradition were "not in my hands". "The Iranian government is already sensitive and public opinion in Iran is very sensitive to my case. What would happen, I honestly don't know."

He has also supplied documents which suggest that his eventual fate was a subject of diplomatic horse-trading as the US sought information on its citizens held in Iran.

Mr Tajik claims that successive governments wrongly considered issues other than his health when refusing his appeal and said he would be prepared to stand trial in Britain.