U.S. Space Entrepreneur Accused of Aiding Iran Satellite Launch

Iran Sets its Space Sights Higher After Satellite Launch
This still from a video by the Fars News Agency posted to the Omid satellite Web site shows the Safir-2 rocket launch in February 2009. (Image credit: Omid-Sat/Fars News Agency.)

An American space and satellite entrepreneur has been accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran by secretly negotiating a deal with Russia that led to the 2005 launch of the first Iranian-owned satellite, according to news reports.

Nader Modanlo, who was born in Iran but came to the United States as a teenager, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that he used his business and engineering contacts to secretly work out a deal with Russia to launch the first Iranian Sina-1 satellite into orbit, according to the Associated Press. If convicted on all counts, which include violating U.S. sanctions, Modanlo could be sentenced to 65 years in prison and ordered to pay a hefty $10 million fine.

Five Iranian nationals were also indicted in the investigation, but none are being held in custody, according to the AP.

The Sina-1 satellite's launch was a milestone that helped kick start Iran's young space program. The country launched its first satellite aboard an Iranian-built rocket in 2009, and successfully repeated the feat by launching an observation satellite, called Rashad-1, into orbit on June 15.

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told the AP that Iran's launch record demonstrates the country's growing mastery of the multi-stage rocket technology required for long-range nuclear missiles.

"They might have a couple of more failures in the next couple of launches," McDowell told the AP. "But after that, they will basically have the capability to know what they're doing." [Top 10 Space Weapons]

After moving to the United States, Modanlo, a resident of Potomac, Md., earned degrees in engineering and aeronautics from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He went on to work on projects for the Defense Department and NASA before co-founding Final Analysis Inc., a satellite telecommunications company, in 1992.

At one point, Final Analysis was worth up to $500 million, according to the AP, but after a series of setbacks with their satellites and disagreements between Modanlo and co-founder Michael Ahan, the company filed for corporate bankruptcy in September 2001.

In December 2001, Russia inked a deal with Iran to provide satellites, launch services and a satellite control center. Modanlo's indictment states that he and several co-defendents founded a company called Prospect Telecom in Switzerland that was used to funnel $10 million in compensation to Modanlo for his suspected part in arranging the deal.

During Final Analysis' ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, civil court claims from former investors that accused Modanlo of forging signatures and documents caught the attention of federal officials, according to the AP. In May 2004, federal agents raided Modanlo's home and seized computers, drives and an enormous amount of paperwork.

Modanlo, 50, denies the accusations set forth, according to the AP. The trial is currently set to begin in October 2012.

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