When Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar moved to Orange County from Canada in 2011, she appeared to be starting what could become a positive new chapter in what had, until then, been a difficult life.

Years before, when she was 19 years old, Bahadorifar fled her home country of Iran. After ending up in Canada, she wed her husband in an arranged marriage, only to later suffer physical abuse at his hands, according to court documents.

Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad gestures as she speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Despite that, Bahadorifar had managed to build a career as an elementary school teacher and raise her young son. By 2011, she had divorced her first husband and was headed to California to be with her new husband.

Just three years later, however, Bahadorifar would start corresponding with an old family friend in Iran. The messages between them would, by 2023, ultimately land her in prison, the only American citizen charged in a plot orchestrated mostly by agents of the Iranian regime to kidnap a prominent dissident living in the United States.

Bahadorifar, 48, a department store employee and Irvine resident, was handed a four-year sentence on Friday, April 7, with an additional three years of parole after she’s released.

Prosecutors accused her of violating sanctions placed on Iran when she paid a Brooklyn-based private investigator to spy on Masih Alinejad, 46, a journalist, women’s rights activist and longtime critic of human rights abuses in Iran.

On Friday, at her sentencing hearing in a Manhattan courtroom, Bahadorifar apologized to Alinejad.

“You are a hero to all Iranians,” Bahadorifar said. “I am so sorry.”

Bahadorifar has said she was unwittingly swept up in the plot. Federal prosecutors did not charge her with crimes related to the attempted kidnapping of Alinejad. But how exactly Bahadorifar became so entwined in the spying ring is still unclear.

Prosecutors identified four men involved in the scheme who they said were working for Iranian intelligence agencies. All still live in Iran, and have not been arrested for the plot.

The group sought to kidnap Alinejad and several other victims, with the aim of brining them all back to Iran.

Some elements of the plot to kidnap Alinejad were outlandish: Part of the plan may have included hiring military-style speedboats to ferry the agents as they fled New York City, court documents showed.

One of the men involved was Mahmoud Khazein, an Iranian businessman contracted to run the spy ring. In 2020, the family friend in contact with Bahadorifar messaged her, asking for $670 to be paid to Khazein. The payment went to the private investigator, who also told prosecutors he was not aware he was working to kidnap Alinejad.

In her apology, Bahadorifar said she was “humiliated to have been involved in any attempt to harm” Alinejad.

Alinejad also attended the court hearing. She did not accept the apology.

“Even trying to use this to save herself? I’m not a hero,” Alinejad said. “My heroes are those people who got killed by the Iranian regime, and they never played victims like she did.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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