Before he opened his door early one morning last April to find a few dozen armed federal agents waiting to arrest him, before he was charged with illegally exporting technology to Iran, before he found himself at the center of high-stakes diplomatic negotiations that led to last week’s release of four Americans imprisoned in Iran, Houston inventor and businessman Tooraj Faridi seemed to be living the American dream.
The clean-shaven, 46-year-old fitness buff, who bears a passing resemblance to a Mission: Impossible–era Martin Landau, lived with his wife and two children in a handsome ranch-style house in the wealthy Memorial area of Houston. He had risen to become the vice president of operations for Smart Power Systems, an electronics company based in Spring Branch, about fifteen minutes from Faridi’s house. When he wasn’t traveling around the country on business, he was taking his family on trips to Cancun or Sweden. A black belt in karate, he taught weekly martial arts and physical fitness classes at the local YMCA. He received his American citizenship in November 2008, making him a dual Iranian-American citizen. It was a life he tried not to take for granted.
Faridi grew up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, but he was always more interested in gadgets than politics. When he was in eighth grade, he picked up a summer job at Faratel, an electronics company co-founded by his uncle in 1973 that designed, manufactured, and sold power protection products—essentially, very sophisticated surge protectors. Faridi later earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the prestigious University of Tehran, and after graduation secured a full-time job at Faratel. In his decade with the company, he became the firm’s technical manager.
Then, on September 21, 2001, just ten days after 9/11, Faridi and his family moved to Houston, where Faridi had accepted a job at Smart Power, a sister company of Faratel; both companies were co-owned by Faridi’s uncle, Bahram Mechanic, and Mechanic’s business partner, Khosrow Afghahi.
Faridi, who was known to the predominantly American-born staff as Roger, eventually became the vice president of operations at Smart Power, which was the position he held when he, 69-year-old Mechanic, and Afghahi, 71, were arrested in a series of pre-dawn FBI raids on April 17, 2015, and charged with violating America’s embargo against Iran. All three pleaded not guilty. Faridi, the only one of the three granted bail by the judge, spent the next nine months wearing an ankle monitor and preparing his trial defense. Then, on the morning of January 17, Faridi received a call from his lawyer telling him that the U.S. government wanted to drop all charges as part of Obama’s controversial “prisoner swap” with Iran. (Mechanic and Afghahi were also waiting for their day in court when they were pre-emptively and unexpectedly pardoned last week.)
Overnight, Faridi went from relatively unknown to notorious. Donald Trump declared that the six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian “deserve to have been in prison.” The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed under the headline “Meet the Friends of Iran’s Military Pardoned by Obama.” Faridi was understandably wary of speaking to the media. This interview, his first since the pardon, was conducted last Friday in the downtown Houston office of his lawyer, Kent Schaffer.
The Arrest and its Aftermath
Let’s talk about the circumstances of your arrest last April. Did you have any idea that it was coming?
No, no, not at all. It was about six in the morning. I was sleeping, and all of a sudden there was this loud banging on my door. I thought they were going to break the door down. I was wondering, ‘what’s going on?’ So I just ran to the door, opened the door, turned off the alarm. Two FBI agents took me out, put me in handcuffs. My kids were sleeping upstairs. I didn’t have my pants on, so my wife got clothes, socks, and shoes for me. I was outside in handcuffs, and I would say there were around twenty agents and officers—it was like a SWAT team.
Why did you think you were being arrested?
I didn’t know what was going on. Had a neighbor complained about me? My son is 18 years old, so I was like, ‘did something happen with him?’ I didn’t get the answer until they took me to the FBI building. When I tried to ask what I was being arrested for, they just told me to look at the wall. [Texas Monthly reached out to the FBI for comment on this article. The agency provided no responses to our questions.]
Had you ever had any kind of trouble with the law?
No, never. Never thought about it.
What was your reaction when you learned you had been charged with violating the economic embargo on Iran?
I told the FBI agents I didn’t know the details of the embargo, but I knew the concept was, no import or export to Iran. And I was sure that we didn’t import or export from there. They brought up a lot of things that I didn’t know. They talked about money laundering. I didn’t even know what that meant. They mentioned this company in Turkey that was supposedly involved. I had no clue about that. I told them, you can come and check our books, you can check everything.
I told them it was not my place to know. I was the vice president of operations there, and my job was to fly around the United States to find distributors and find customers. My goal was making sure we could supply all our customers around the country. All our business is here in the United States, although we had recently found a distributor in Canada. Of course, after the indictment they walked out. That was the only customer we had outside the United States. And we also had many American companies doing manufacturing for us.
What else did the FBI agents ask you?
They wanted to make a link to Faratel [Smart Power’s sister company in Iran], and I said I had no information about them—my uncle is the owner, you can ask him. I talked to the FBI for about thirty minutes. They asked me questions, I answered. At that time I didn’t really know the procedure, like, what I should do. But then I noticed that whatever I said, they somehow gave it back to me in the direction that they wanted to go. I would say, “No, I didn’t say that,” and they would say, “Yes, you did.” I began to feel uncomfortable, and I even told them that it seemed like a movie. They said it’s not a movie. I said I wasn’t comfortable to continue, so they stopped it at that time. And then I asked them, “What should I do now?’ One of them said, “You can get a lawyer.”
After that you were held at the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, right? What was that experience like?
When they were checking us in, a lady took my information. She asked me about my education and I said I have B.A. degree in electrical engineering [from the University of Tehran], as well as an MBA [from the University of St. Thomas in Houston]. She called her boss and said, “Where do I put him? He’s an educated guy, I can’t just put him in there with everyone else.” I told her I wanted to be put with my uncle [Bahram Mechanic, the co-owner and president of Smart Power], because he’s old—I needed to see him and make sure he’s okay. She left to go to her computer, and when she came back she said, no, we had to go to a segregated unit, because we were both on Google and in the news. So I didn’t see my uncle until our second court appearance three or four days later.
One hour a day they took us out to get fresh air. Each person was in a cage. I did some karate exercises just to work up a sweat, because when you’re in a segregated unit you don’t have anything to do, you’re just thinking and thinking and thinking. I had my indictment, and I was just reading it over and over to learn what was going on. I was like, what is this law, what is this regulation, what is this, what is that? Most of the indictment was about my uncle.
During your detention hearing, an FBI agent testified that he had evidence you were an agent of the Iranian military. When your lawyer, Kent Schaffer, asked him what the evidence was, the agent cited an Iranian military ID card they had found while searching your house. What was that card?
It was the card I got after completing mandatory military service. Every Iranian man after turning 18 has to complete two years of military service. If you don’t do it, you are basically considered a fugitive—you can’t get a passport, no one can hire you. It was interesting, they found it in my bedside drawer. Why would I keep it there if I were trying to hide it?
You were granted bail by the judge after ten days in jail. What was it like to be out on bond?
It’s crazy. Before all this, when you Googled my name, it showed I was an inventor and businessman. Now if you Google my name it’s just indictment, indictment, indictment. My banks closed my accounts without any explanation. Innocent until proven guilty has no basis with corporations—you cannot argue with them. They closed my accounts, my wife’s accounts, and our savings account for our kids. They just gave us some time to take our money somewhere else. My credit cards stopped working. I opened an account at Comerica, but the next month I got a note saying they were closing it. [Comerica declined to comment, citing customer privacy.] I have one credit card that I have clung to somehow, and I had to move my son and wife to different accounts. I had an ankle monitor this big [he mimes a grapefruit-sized bracelet]. I couldn’t sleep well because it kept hitting my other leg. It hit my leg when I walked, and especially when I worked out. I taught weekend exercise classes at my YMCA, but I had to quit because I was worried people would think I was a sex offender or something. I felt like, this is something you put on an animal’s leg. I had to charge it every day.
How do you charge it?
You plug yourself in. Normally I did it at the office. Then it starts beeping when it’s fully charged, so you have to be aware of who’s around. One time I had to pick up a rental car and the rental agency was next to Hobby Airport. Apparently it’s programmed so that if you get within five miles of an airport it sets off an alert. So I got to the counter and it started beeping pretty loud. My son was there, and he was like, “What’s going on?” Fortunately it was so noisy that the guy at the counter didn’t know it was me. I didn’t go to the doctor, I didn’t go to the dentist, I didn’t do anything. But I kept reminding myself, better this than jail. Finally in October the judge ordered that the ankle monitor be taken off.
Did you continue working at Smart Power while you were out on bail?
Yes. Actually, one of the conditions of my bail was that I couldn’t go back to work at Smart Power, because the country was under indictment, and that I needed to seek employment elsewhere. But then after two days I received a letter from the judge telling me to go back to the company, because they didn’t want the 50 people in the office to be unemployed. They were thinking that because my uncle is inside, nobody can manage the company and it will go down. And I can tell you, it was probably a matter of days before the company would have to close, because the production would stop. We had to work day and night to save the company. We had a competitor send out a message to our customers that we were under indictment. I had to call customers and assure them that I’m back, that the company will continue. Then some of the big distributors here in the U.S. just decided not to work with us. Banks closed our accounts. Thank God we could get the company back on track. We got some new customers and some new contracts. It was quite a challenge.
It seems almost miraculous that it survived at all.
Everyone’s shocked when I say the company’s doing well. The employees did a really good job. We pulled it together. One challenge is that many of our parts came from that Taiwanese company, Hosodo, that was indicted. But we wanted to make sure we were complying with all the regulations, that we didn’t cross any lines. So we found other suppliers.
One of the conditions of your bail was that you couldn’t travel, right?
I could ask for a permit, but the only time I did was because I’d promised my kids for years to take them to Universal Studios in Orlando. The trip was already planned for July when this thing happened in April. Mr. Schaffer filed a motion to allow me to take my family there for a week by car. I was very thankful for that because my son is 18 and I don’t know what’s going to happen when he goes off to college. So that was a blessing. We had a good time. That was the only thing I did. It was a hassle to go anywhere.
Now that you’ve been pardoned, have any of your old customers come back?
We’re hopeful. I was pardoned, Mr. Mechanic was pardoned, and his partner was pardoned, but the company was not. So we’re waiting to get the indictment dismissed. It should be dismissed.
The United States of America vs. Tooraj Faridi
The indictment charges that some of the electronic devices Smart Power manufactures in Houston ended up at Faratel. True?
I don’t know what Faratel does now, but when I was there they were making their own products. It might be similar to what we make, but they have their own engineering team and their own production team. But they need the components to make those products, so they imported them from a trading company in Taiwan called Hosodo.
Why can’t Faratel purchase those components in Iran?
Some of them they do make, like capacitors, but if you want to get all the components you need, you can’t do it in Iran, so they were importing them.
Hosodo was named as a defendant in the indictment.
Yes, they were named. They supplied Faratel, and because Mr. Mechanic had a relationship with [Hosodo], they started supplying similar raw material to Smart Power. He knew them, they knew his requirements. But they weren’t the only vendor. We have so many vendors we deal with.
How often do you return to Iran?
I used to go once every couple of years. But then during the last four years after my mom passed away and my dad was in a bad health condition I started going almost every year just to visit him.
During the nine months you were out on bail preparing for your trial, did you have any contact with representatives of the Iranian government?
In that case, why do you think Iran was so interested in getting you released?
Mr. Schaffer asked me that. I said, actually, I’m interested to know. If you find out, tell me please!
Is there any possibility in your mind that the accusations about your uncle and Mr. Afghahi could be true?
What can I say? I don’t know. I got informed about all of this through the indictment. I have no idea how Faratel gets their parts. They were trying to show that this was a sort of family network, like the mafia, and since I’m the nephew of the Mr. Mechanic I must be involved. Yes, I’m his nephew, and when we’re outside of work I love him and he loves me. But when we’re at work, sometimes we have disagreements. At work, I’m his employee. I try to be loyal, but there are many things he didn’t tell me and that I found out through the case.
Now that he’s out of prison, have you been able to ask him about any of these things?
No, I didn’t question him about any of this. When we were in jail he asked me what was on the indictment, and I said he had to read it himself. [After the first four days they were allowed to meet.] We didn’t talk about the details of the indictment at all. All we talked about was what was going to happen to the company. He’d had experiences like this before but this had never happened to me. He said, we’re going to prove everything. Everything’s going to be okay.
You said you don’t necessarily know everything that your uncle and Mr. Afghahi were doing at the company, because they were the owners and you were an employee. Yet your uncle was the owner and you were a vice president. It seems a little implausible that if your uncle was involved in any shady activities, if he was trying to circumvent the embargo, that you wouldn’t know about that.
Mr. Mechanic was running the company. Mr. Mechanic is the owner of the other company [Faratel]. That company might have gotten the parts from Taiwan. And for some reason Mr. Mechanic might have it that the parts go from here to there. He didn’t share that with me, because I had nothing to do with the other company [Faratel]. I was involved in getting the parts to Houston [from suppliers in the U.S. and around the world], building the product, and selling it within the United States. So whatever he did, why would he share it with me?
Maybe because you’re his nephew, and because you used to work at Faratel? Did you ever discuss Faratel with him?
So sometimes my uncle might say, “Hey, we’re doing good, we have a new model up.” I would say, “That’s good, I’m happy for you.” But why should I know about the daily operations? He didn’t share that much—some good news about the product, some good news about the company doing well. But why would he share that he’s getting parts here and getting parts there? He might say something about being busy, or it being difficult for them to get money because of the economic situation [in Iran]. But it’s not information about daily operations.
Is your uncle back at work at Smart Power?
No, not yet.
Is he planning to return?
I don’t know. I guess so—we didn’t talk about it.
I suppose one possible defense of Mr. Mechanic is that, okay, maybe some of his products ended up in Iran, but the embargo is so complex that it’s impossible to follow to the letter. For the sake of argument, let’s say some of these power backups or power conditioners or transformer-based filters ended up in Iran—what do they have to do with weapons manufacturing?**
Because my uncle is the owner of both, you can always make a connection. But that doesn’t mean that Smart Power is an agent to buy stuff for Faratel. They bought parts from Taiwan, but we didn’t send them anything.
In 1986 Mr. Mechanic and his sister-in-law were fined by the U.S. government for trying to illegally export high-technology generators without a license. Do you know anything about that incident?
I didn’t know the details, or who was involved. In 1986 I was in Iran, and nobody shared it with me. I heard something about it from him [later]. It was probably one sentence, like, “Yeah, we had some problems.” I didn’t question him, because I felt like he didn’t want to talk about it.
When did you learn that a pardon might be a possible?
Three days before I received the pardon.
Did you have any idea before that that you were being considered for a pardon as part of this US-Iran deal?
Not at all. When my lawyer called me and told me, I was like, “Are you sure it’s me? Why me?” I mean, it was great news. I was in shock.
Some politicians and pundits have called you out by name as a danger to American national security, and criticized President Obama for pardoning you.
Channel 2 News in Houston sent a reporter to interview one of my neighbors. My neighbor didn’t know I was the one on the news, but they went there, knocked on the door, and said, “Hey, do you know your neighbor is the guy on the news? He’s been indicted under the anti-terrorism law [actually it was for violating the Iranian embargo] and he got away with a presidential pardon. How do you feel about that?” I think she was shocked, so she said something like, “It’s a pity all those FBI man-hours went down the tube.” But I don’t blame my neighbor; she was just saying what Channel 2 wanted her to. I live in this society, I live in this neighborhood. My kids go to school here. I want this to fade away and not create a problem for my family.
So you’re free now, President Obama has pardoned you, you’ve got the ankle monitor off. But many of the Republican presidential candidates have criticized Obama for this deal, saying he betrayed the country by letting you and the other six Iranians go free. Are you worried that if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or someone else became president, they might go after you again?
Of course. I was worried from the very beginning, which is why I asked Mr. Schaffer what would happen after I’m pardoned. What if the same thing happens and they come after me? Do I have to worry my whole life while I’m living in this country? And he told me that after you’ve been pardoned, they cannot put up another case against you. The pardon doesn’t apply to what happens afterward, but they cannot bring the same case against me. I also wanted to know if I would lose my citizenship and have to leave the country. And they said, no, the pardon has nothing to do with your citizenship. But there’s always a concern—what if they take out this file and put it in another file? We’re now associated with the Iranian government. Who knows what’s going to happen a year from now? A new president comes in, and who knows. What if they put me under surveillance?
How does it feel when people link your name with the six other pardoned Iranians and label all of you national security threats? [Faridi said he doesn’t know any of the other six except for Mr. Mechanic and Mr. Afghahi.]
My concern is, of course, how the government will act. And the other thing is that, while I’m living in this community, I hope nothing comes against us that creates a concern in the people I’m living with. I want things to be good and safe for me, for my kids—going to school, going to college. I’m hopeful that this goes away, fades out. But right now I’m very concerned because of the things on the news. They’re trying to make this as exciting as possible. My life doesn’t have any excitement, so they need to put some pepper on it. They create their own news, and create all sorts of problems, and then they go away, because they feel they’ve done their job.
Mr. Schaffer has been telling the media that you want to stay in Houston.
Yes, this is my life. My home is here, my family is here. I have nowhere else to go. I brought my family here to give them more opportunities, and to be an asset to the community. We were granted this opportunity to come and live here. I think I appreciate it more than people who have always lived here, because they don’t know what they have. I don’t take it for granted. I try to make the best out of it, I try to be a citizen who can keep his head up. This is my way of life.
**Ed. Note: The indictment charged that “the defendants developed and executed a scheme to obtain various commodities, including dual-use United States-origin microelectronics, and illegally export these to Iran. […] The shipments consisted of microelectronics such as microcontrollers (“MCUs”) and digital signal processors (“DSPs”) as well as other equipment related to Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) technology [technologies Smart Power and Faratel make]. A UPS is an electrical apparatus that provides emergency power when normal electrical power fails and, for that reason, UPSs are critical for various military systems such as naval vessels, radar arrays and air defense systems and are also crucial in the nuclear energy sector. A UPS is superior to an auxiliary generator in that it will provide near-instantaneous protection from power interruptions, by supplying energy stored in batteries.”