Iranian guilty in arms smuggling try

He admits in Baltimore to attempting to buy parts for F-4, F-14 fighters

April 14, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

An Iranian man pleaded guilty in Baltimore federal court yesterday to trying to buy highly sensitive American military aircraft parts and attempting to smuggle the restricted equipment back to his home country.

The investigation leading to the plea spanned three continents and marked the second time in two years that a Maryland undercover operation exposed suspected illegal arms dealers accused of working for Iran.

"Our area is ripe for it because there are about 800 defense contractors just in Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland," said Cynthia J. O'Connell, special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Baltimore.

Abbas Tavakolian, 58, of Tehran, Iran, pleaded guilty to attempting to buy $380,000 worth of aircraft parts and weapons components for F-4 and F-14 fighter jets from a dummy corporation set up by federal agents investigating illegal arms deals.

He also pleaded guilty to money laundering for funneling funds through Panama and into the United States to complete the deal.

According to his plea agreement, Tavakolian will receive a sentence of between three years and 10 months and four years and 9 months in prison. Sentencing is scheduled July 6.

A task force made up of several federal agencies meets in Maryland every two weeks to comb through some of the 30 leads a month linked to the illegal export of U.S. military equipment.

In 2003, two Taiwanese businessmen who allegedly tried to purchase sensitive U.S. military equipment for Iran were charged after an undercover sting operation in Maryland. Federal prosecutors said the pair attempted to obtain early warning radar, Cobra attack helicopters, night-vision goggles and satellite photos for Tehran in violation of the U.S. embargo against Iran. The outcome of the case could not be learned yesterday.

"Obviously our military is concerned about all of those items being used against them or used against other countries," O'Connell said.

Customs officials said there are about 80 continuing investigations across the country into the sale or theft of arms and other strategically sensitive equipment with a suspected Iranian connection.

"The need to prevent the export of crucial military technology has only become heightened in recent years," Maryland interim U.S. Attorney Allen F. Loucks said yesterday in a statement.

The weapons and parts sought in the Tavakolian case could have been used, experts said, by an Iranian air force that struggles to repair its aging F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats supplied by the United States decades ago.

"Most of Iran's military equipment is aging or second-rate, and much of it is worn," Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a December 2004 assessment of Iran's military.

Before the United States broke off relations with Iran in the late 1970s, the Iranian air force had more than 450 modern combat aircraft, including top-of-the-line F-14 Tomcat fighters, and about 5,000 well-trained pilots. Today, experts credit the U.S. trade embargo with forcing the Iranian air force to cannibalize aircraft for spare parts.

In a separate paper updated this week, Cordesman estimated that the Iranian air force still has more than 300 combat aircraft in its inventory, but he added, "Many of these aircraft ... are either not operational or cannot be sustained in air combat."

Appearing in court yesterday morning in a burgundy prison jumpsuit and with a graying beard, Tavakolian relied on a translator to communicate with him in his native Persian.

"He doesn't speak any English," said Joseph Evans, one of his two federal public defenders.

Through his attorneys, Tavakolian questioned some of the facts of the case presented to the judge by Assistant U.S. Attorney James G. Warwick. But in the end, Tavakolian told U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett that the transaction generally happened the way the prosecutor had described it.

The investigation started in January 2004 when Hossein Vaezi, Tavakolian's son-in-law, sent an e-mail to the dummy business run by undercover customs agents in Maryland, according to the indictment.

He asked about acquiring 100 Vulcan six-barrel automatic gunnery system components known as "inner drums." Used to feed ammunition into the jet's multibarrel Gatling gun, the drums are a part of the gunnery system for the F-4 and F-14 and are banned by law for export from the United States to Iran.

After meetings in Central Europe and an American territory in the South Pacific, agents set the trap, according to court papers.

Tavakolian was convinced that the agents intended to sell him the inner drums when he reached an undisclosed U.S. territory in the South Pacific, prosecutors said.

During a meeting, the undercover agents even helped him prepare to ship the items by DHL express delivery service back to Iran, according to prosecutors.

"He also directed the agents to label the items as agricultural equipment in order to disguise the true nature of the items," prosecutors wrote in court papers. The next day, he came back to them to discuss purchasing an entire F-14 Tomcat.

Federal customs agents then arrested Tavakolian. Vaezi, his accused accomplice, remains a fugitive in Iran, authorities said.

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