Iranian trying to buy illegal arms to serve 57 months in prison

U.S. judge sentences man caught in Md.-based sting

July 07, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Calling an aborted arms deal a "direct threat to the security of the United States," a federal judge in Baltimore sentenced an Iranian man yesterday to nearly five years in prison for trying to buy weapons for American fighter jets and shipping the military equipment back to his home country.

Abbas Tavakolian, 58, of Tehran pleaded guilty in April to trying to buy $380,000 worth of aircraft parts and weapons components for F-4 and F-14 fighter jets from undercover federal agents. He also pleaded guilty to money laundering for funneling funds through Panama and into the United States to complete the deal.

The 57-month prison sentence for Tavakolian imposed by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett was a result of a Maryland-based undercover operation designed to ensnare suspected illegal arms dealers. Department of Defense investigators and customs officials have said that the state remains a prime target for those who attempt to lure local defense contractors to sell them weapons systems illegally.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James G. Warwick argued that Tavakolian had behaved like a trained Iranian intelligence agent. He scoped out meeting locations, inspected the rooms for listening devices and insisted that he and the agents posing as arms dealers speak in code, according to the federal prosecutor.

"He was very streetwise," Warwick told the federal judge.

But Tavakolian's public defenders argued that the judge should impose a more lenient sentence of 46 months because their client was only a front man - and a bumbling one at that. Their client was such an amateur, according to defense attorney Joseph Evans, that he used a Hotmail e-mail account to communicate. If Tavakolian was an agent of the Iranian government, Evans asked, why did he have such a tough time getting permission to leave the country and meeting the undercover agents to complete the deal?

"I was not an important person," Tavakolian said, attributing his crime and arrest to a "family situation" masterminded by his son-in-law.

But Bennett said the issue had little impact on his sentence. The crimes, the judge said, were egregious whether Tavakolian was a sophisticated Iranian spy or a man simply hoodwinked by a relative. "You are very important person in my eyes," Bennett said, adding that the illegal export of arms from the United States constituted a grave risk to homeland security and for American troops abroad.

According to his plea agreement, Tavakolian could have received a prison sentence of three years and 10 months to four years and nine months. When he completes his sentence, Tavakolian will be sent back to Iran, officials said.

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 a grand jury indictment. Vaezi, his accused accomplice, remains a fugitive in Iran, authorities said.

Tavakolian 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 weapons system for the F-4 and F-14 and are banned by law for export from the United States to Iran.

The undercover agents arrested Tavakolian after a meeting on a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, prosecutors said.

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 fighter jets supplied by the United States decades ago. A message left for the Iranian mission to the United Nations was not immediately returned.

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