On August 22nd, Patrick Campbell of Sierra Leone was arrested by ICE agents at JFK Airport and charged with violating the Iranian Transactions Regulations. Campbell’s arrest made global headlines because he concealed raw uranium inside shoes in his luggage. According to an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint against Campbell, he had communicated for over a year prior to his arrest with an undercover ICE agent about selling Uranium 308 (or yellowcake) from Sierra Leone to Iran. In 2013, apparently without any assistance from ICE, Campbell was able to obtain on his own a U.S. travel visa in order to meet with the agent in the United States about the sale of uranium. He was arrested after clearing U.S. Customs.

It would appear that Campbell could be charged with any number of crimes under U.S. law because of his possession of uranium and, as the AP reported last week, his travelling on a fake passport. The only offense alleged in the criminal complaint, however, is “[b]rokering the supply of goods which the defendant knew were destined and intended for supply to Iran.” The affidavit alleges that Campbell impermissibly furthered the brokering by “flying into JFK” to finalize the sale and “bringing with him a sample of Uranium [and] a contract for the sale.”

Prosecuting Campbell for violating U.S. sanctions is a case of compelling facts making shaky law. It does not appear that Campbell met, spoke or even texted with the undercover ICE agent once he entered the United States. Had he done so, a federal prosecutor would be in a much better position to show Campbell attempted to “act as broker” in the United States as required under the Regulations.

U.S. sanctions’ severe penalties are obviously enticing for law enforcement to use wherever a case could be made. But what if a foreign person is attempting to fly out of the United States to conduct business relating to Iran and has on his laptop contract documents evidencing such business? Under the logic of the Campbell complaint, the foreign person could be arrested for his attempt to leave the United States in order to conduct eventual business relating to Iran. While prosecution under such circumstances alone is unlikely, it would not seem so unlikely after the Campbell case for the government to prosecute someone under such circumstances if the foreign person faced other charges and sanctions violations carried the largest penalty.

The United States has been recently expanding its reach over foreign persons’ dealings with Iran, most notably foreign subsidiaries of U.S. parent companies. As the stretch of sanctions includes more foreign individuals and their subsequent imprisonment, the United States may find itself retreating from expanding prosecution after a successful defense or even international criticism that U.S. sanctions as so applied are too attenuated for a reasonable interpretation of the sanctions’ purpose or the laws themselves.