TAMPA — Sending crayons to Iranian schoolchildren could bring someone the same prison sentence as handing over a nuclear missile to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
That was an argument made by the attorney for a Tampa businessman and engineer sentenced by a federal judge to four years in prison Thursday for shipping $14.8 million in sophisticated computer equipment to Iran from 2003 to 2011.
Mohammad Reza "Ray" Hajian, 57, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Tehran, shipped the equipment via a middleman in the United Arab Emirates knowing it would then be sent to Iran, prosecutors said.
James Felman, Hajian's attorney, asked the judge for leniency, noting the equipment was not intended for the Iranian government or military.
Instead, he said, it was sold to a South African business working on an Iranian cell phone network in partnership with an Iranian firm.
Felman noted in court papers that under U.S. law, the shipment of almost anything to Iran is construed as a threat to U.S. security, whether crayons or weapons of mass destruction, because the country is considered a sponsor of terrorism.
And the shipment of innocuous items in violation of the U.S. trade embargo with Iran, by law, can lead to punishment as severe as someone convicted of sending a nuclear bomb, Felman said.
He said Hajian should be treated more leniently than the purveyor of weapons of mass destruction.
Prosecutor Rachelle DesVaux Bedke acknowledged evidence indicates the equipment was going to be used for cell phone infrastructure.
But she said, "The problem is, this is Iran. There's no way the government can do an end-user check. … The possibility exists" the equipment could eventually fall into the wrong hands.
In an agreement with prosecutors, Hajian, who has no prior criminal record, pleaded guilty in July to conspiring to illegally export materials to Iran.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked as an engineer for the city of Tampa and Pinellas County.
"I am truly sorry," Hajian told U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington and a courtroom packed with family and friends. "I'm willing to take responsibility for my actions. I am not a bad person. I just did some bad things."
Prosecutors said Hajian was first warned about shipping materials to Iran in 2001 when he was quizzed by U.S. Treasury officials after they discovered a financial transfer from Iran to one of his companies.
But they said Hajian continued to ship equipment to Iran.
Hajian's sentence will be followed by one year of supervised release.
The judge also imposed a $10 million judgment against several defunct companies Hajian operated out of his home — RH International, Nexiant and P&P Computers.
Covington could have sentenced Hajian to a maximum of five years in prison.
"You are not a bad man," the judge told Hajian. "But you made some bad mistakes. You made decisions that could have caused harm to the United States."
The case was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and several other federal agencies.