Some Justice Department idiot wanted to throw a news conference immediately after Ardebili was in handcuffs. The political appointee hoped to make a splash, offering up Operation Shakespeare as the kickoff to the Bush Administration's "new" counterproliferation strategy.
Richards and Hall knew this was foolish, near-sighted, even dangerous. It would blow their cover, waste hard-won leads that might unearth other smugglers. Hell, they might not get another chance like this for years.
At this point, the agents couldn't know who else Ardebili might implicate as the hidden cameras rolled. They couldn't know what they'd find once they searched his address book, cell phone and laptop. That would take time, months, maybe longer.
"You tell them we didn't do all this to make a single arrest, like this is some kind of traffic stop," Richards told Hall. "You f-ing tell them that."
Hall didn't need any encouragement.
"Unbelievable," the normally composed Hall screamed into the phone, red-faced. "Simply unbelievable. Do I have to explain what's at stake here?"
Hall and Richards found themselves battling more than politicians that night.
They were alarmed to learn of a bureaucratic snafu, one that also threatened to scuttle much of their hard work.
Incredibly, a critical piece of Georgian paperwork, the official authorization for the hotel sting, had not yet been signed by a local judge.
It wasn't the Georgians' fault. The judge had been waiting for a key U.S. document, and had only received it that day. Apparently, State Department bureaucrats had dithered for weeks drafting the document - as one agent recalled, "They kept making mindless changes, like changing the word 'happy' to 'glad.'"
This delay was no minor matter.
Without the judge's signature, the sting wasn't legally authorized.
In other words, nothing they'd done in Tbilisi - the videos from the car ride and hotel sting, the radar microchip delivery - could be used in American court.
Once they got the signature, they'd have to find a way to start from scratch.
The Iranian arms broker returned to the undercover suite the next morning at 9:48.
He eagerly greeted the two undercover U.S. agents - Darius, posing as a Russian arms broker, and Patrick Lechleitner, posing as a dealer from Yardley, Pa.
Ardebili immediately raised a prickly subject, the Iranian president's controversial appearance a few days earlier at Columbia University in New York.
The agents weren't sure how to respond. Was Ardebili just making conversation? Or revealing a political affinity for hard-liners?
Who was he, really?
Half-joking, Darius tried to take his measure. "Does Mr. Ahmadinejad know you are here?"
Ardebili laughed. "This is important matter. All the governments affect our work. At present, it's the worst situation for Iran. It's the world against Iran. . . U.S. is going to push Iran. I think this is good for us."
"More profit for us!" Lechleitner said.
"Yes, it's good."
With nearly every story, Ardebili revealed something the agents hadn't known.
A tale he told them of a $1 million sonar system was illustrative. The purchase demonstrated he was no amateur, but it also disclosed a routine challenge the Iranians faced, one that the agents hadn't considered:
Like any complex software, this system had arrived with technological bugs. And, as Ardebili explained, he couldn't very well call the manufacturer to fix it.
"Because they don't know [the sonar] is in Iran?" Lechleitner asked.
"Right," Ardebili said.
In other words, no help desk.
Ardebili didn't work directly for his government. But as he explained, Iranian officials stood ready to lend a hand.
If Darius could ship U.S. gear to Iranian diplomats in Third World countries, the diplomats could use their immunity to skirt customs.
"I was thinking of the embassy in Baku," Ardebili said. "It's not necessary to go and knock on the [embassy] door. We could arrange a meeting in a special hotel. . ."
"Does this really work?" Darius said. "You done this?"
Delicately, Darius tried to repair the damage caused by the delayed paperwork. Whenever possible, he circled back and got Ardebili to repeat admissions he'd made the previous night about the radar. This was awkward and time-consuming, but Ardebili appeared not to notice.
Next, Darius revisited a critical topic left hanging the night before.
"On the nuclear issues, you said a couple of years ago you were looking for radioactive something or other. Is that still something that people are trying to find?"
"I can check it. Are you able to provide?"
"Are you looking for the nuclear weapons making or just nuclear power?" Darius said. "Or everything?"
"Everything," the Iranian said. "I am a dealer as you are a seller. I can do anything. I can make a contact. But sometimes I think maybe it's not good to work on the parts that kill people."
"OK," Darius said. "I think you should only do what you are comfortable." The agent didn't want to overplay his hand. If the case went to trial he didn't want a jury thinking he'd bullied a naïve foreigner.
The conversation shifted to helicopters, to radar, night vision and Kevlar vests. Ardebili confirmed that Iran often orders samples of U.S. components, never intending to buy more. Instead, they reverse-engineer the American technology to make their own products.
"We have good specialists now in Iran," Ardebili said.
"Like you did with the Iranian Toufan," Lechleitner said, referring to the surface-to-air missile. "It's very similar to the American TOW missile. Same principle."
Ardebili smiled. "You have very good information."
Now, Darius believed, it was time to push things. Be direct, explicit, leave nothing to interpretation. Take a chance, say things a real arms dealer might not say.
"Let's talk about planning," he said. "One way to look at it is: What is Iran planning to buy in the next five years? Another way to look at it is your connections. What is this called in English?"
Darius picked up a pocket Russian-English dictionary. He thumbed it and pointed to a page.
"It's conspiracy!" he said. "When all are agreeing. You have a big conspiracy and they are all trying to get weapons and parts for Iran."
Ardebili listened intently.
"So," Darius said, "we look at what Iran is going buy in the next five years. Mines, sonar... Write down your conspiracy. . .. to see where we can make most profit."
"Can you sketch out the people you are connected with and you are working with?"
Ardebili took a pen and began to write, outlining the Iranian military procurement network - the conspiracy - which subsidiaries could be trusted, which could not.
When Ardebili finished, he paused, realizing the magnitude of what he'd done. "This is a very secret list, please. Have it in your pocket. Or customer will kill me."
"Let me tell you why we are asking so many questions," Darius said. "Since this 9/11 in America, many American companies are crazy patriots and this is so illegal what we are doing. . ."
Ardebili nodded. "Yes."
"So . . . Patrick can start making relationships. . . He must very gently sell out the side door or under the table." For emphasis, Darius waived his hand under the table. "Because we are right now under the table - black market."
Ardebili laughed. "Yes."
"It is dangerous." Darius hopped up and flipped off the lights. "Black market!"
Ardebili roared. "It is a good demonstration."
"I want no misunderstandings," Darius said.
"Oh, I really know," Ardebili said. "It's a dangerous business." But important work also, he said. Tehran had a sense of urgency. America had invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran believed it might be next, he said.
"They think war is coming."
Darius and Lechleitner treated the Ardebilis to lunch, chauffeuring them to a private room at a posh restaurant, one local police kept prewired with hidden cameras.
After plates of rice and kebabs, Ardebili's father said, "You are rich men and you will be very rich men!"
Ardebili broke out his camera, and they all took pictures, arms around each other, smiling.
Hall, the U.S. prosecutor, and Richards, the ICE supervisor, were not smiling.
It was early morning back in Washington, and soon they'd be getting more calls pushing for a press conference on Ardebili, spoiling much of their hard work.
To counter this, they'd come up with a diabolically simple answer, one that would block the politocos from going public. They'd say: The case is sealed, by order of a U.S. judge. You're not suggesting we violate a judge's order, are you?
The judge, of course, had sealed the case at Hall's request. Even so, it would take a few days of paperwork to unseal it. And that, the agents knew, would buy enough time to put together a compelling, face-to-face case that it ought to stay sealed.
The final play began at 6:17.
Outside the suite, a third undercover U.S. agent gripped a black leather bag. It held a box of gyroscopes, poker chip-sized avionics components the Iranians needed to guide surface-to-air missiles.
The agent, posing as a New England electronics salesman, rapped twice on the door, and Lechleitner escorted him inside. Ardebili, full of confidence, stood to greet the newcomer. "Patrick and Darius are my friends. They are agent for my company."
The undercover agent/salesman acted cautious, a ruse to gather more evidence on tape. Almost sheepishly, he explained that he needed to confirm Ardebili's identity with a list of questions.
Ardebili shrugged and smiled. By now, he was used to silly American procedures.
Undercover agent: When did you first request the gyros? Ardebili: About three years ago.
Was there a problem with customs? Yes, because of the export license.
Ardebili seemed to enjoy the game. To move things along, he opened his laptop to a file with every e-mail he'd exchanged with the U.S. company.
The undercover agent took a look, then handed the laptop back. He lay the gyros on the coffee table and said, "OK, I'm going to have you sign for it." He needed a receipt for his bosses, he said. And one for the jury.
Ardebili did so. "Nice doing business with you," he wrote. "Thank you for the gyroscopes. Amir Ardebili."
Satisfied, Darius stood and stretched. The Americans had more than enough.
Darius walked to the painting on the wall, looking directly into the pinhole camera. He nodded twice, the signal.
There was a knock at the door.
Ardebili was too busy talking about sonar to notice, until Georgian policemen burst into the room, pinning him to his chair.
Contact John Shiffman at xxx or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomorrow: Treasure Trove