U.S. citizen Amir Mirzaei Hekmati is seen in Tehran's Revolutionary… (IRIB TV )
Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — A court in Tehran has sentenced to death a former U.S. Marine of Iranian descent who was convicted of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency, Iranian media reported Monday.
The sentencing of Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, 28, is likely to add to the tension between the United States and Iran, which has been escalating over the Islamic Republic's disputed nuclear program.
Prosecutors accused Hekmati of "cooperation with an enemy government, membership in the CIA and attempts to accuse Iran of supporting terrorism," the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.
A branch of Iran's Revolutionary Court found him to be a "corrupter on Earth" and "waging war on God," the news service reports said, expressions that routinely appear in Iranian court cases. He has 20 days to appeal the sentence.
Last month, Iranian state television broadcast video of a purported confession by Hekmati in which he said he had been sent by the CIA to infiltrate Iranian intelligence services.
Iran alleges that Hekmati served at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and received specialized training. The Intelligence Ministry said its agents identified Hekmati at Bagram air base in neighboring Afghanistan and tracked him as he infiltrated Iran.
Fars reported that Hekmati repeated the alleged confession at a closed-door trial last month, telling the court that he was "fooled" by the CIA and did not want to "strike a blow" at Iran.
In Washington, U.S. officials on Monday demanded that Iran release Hekmati and denied that he worked for the CIA.
"Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for or was sent to Iran by the CIA are false," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said at the White House. "The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters at a briefing that the U.S., which does not have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, has been unable to independently confirm the death sentence. The U.S. was working through Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, to contact Hekmati, she said.
If he has been sentenced, "we would condemn this verdict in the strongest terms," she said. "We've maintained from the beginning that the charges against him were a fabrication, and we call on the Iranian government to release him immediately."
Hekmati's family has said any confessions would have been made under duress. His father, Ali Hekmati, a community college professor in Flint, Mich., reportedly said his son was a former U.S. military interpreter who was in Iran to visit his two grandmothers.
The younger Hekmati was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and graduated from high school in Flint, his father told the Associated Press last month. A Marine Corps spokeswoman said Monday that Hekmati served as a Marine between 2001 and 2005, including a deployment to Iraq in 2004.
At the time of his arrest, Hekmati was working in Qatar for a company that provides services to the Marine Corps, his father told the news service. It is unclear exactly when Hekmati was arrested. His father said it was about three weeks after he arrived in August.
Hekmati's family said it has struggled to provide him with an attorney in Iran.
"We have sought to hire at least 10 different attorneys to no avail," the family said in a statement this month. It said Hekmati's "only advocate in Iran was a government-appointed lawyer who he met on the first day of his trial."
In July 2009, Iran arrested three Americans along the border with Iraq and accused them of spying. The three said they were tourists who had been hiking in the scenic and relatively peaceful northern Kurdish region of Iraq. One of them was released after a year in prison; the others were freed in September.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Zavis from Beirut. Staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.