Comprehensive Piece on Iranian Military Equipment Smuggler and U.S. Sting Operation

October 5, 2010 would like to highlight a comprehensive investigative report, including exclusive interviews, video, and photographs, by John Shiffman of The Philadelphia Enquirer, which details the U.S. sting operation, arrest, detainment, and sentencing of Amir Hossein Ardebili. Ardebili was a “prolific” military parts smuggler who worked in Iran to supply the Iranian military with needed dual-use goods. U.S. agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him in October 2007 during a sting operation in which Ardebili was lured by ICE agents posing as arms dealers to Tbilisi, Georgia, and brought to the United States to stand trial on fourteen counts of violations of export controls, conspiracy, and money laundering. Ardebili received a prison sentence of five years for smuggling to Iran approximately $1 million per year worth of U.S. goods for attack aircraft, missiles, missile guidance, and target acquisition systems.

The Philadelphia Enquirer article contains many new, interesting revelations concerning:

ICE counter-proliferation operations:

  • The Philadelphia front company created by ICE to catch traffickers such as Ardebili went into “business” as early as 2004. Agents made the entire operation appear to be a legitimate import/export company, down to producing a logo, business cards, and a public records trail. ICE installed hidden microphones and cameras in the company’s offices in order to catch potential “clients” talking about violating U.S. export laws.
  • One ICE agent partnered with a legitimate British arms dealer at a trade show in Dubai in order to give himself an air of authenticity and help establish connections with Iranians seeking military equipment. He met Ardebili (operating under the alias, “Alex Dave”) at this show.

Ardebili’s past activities:

  • Ardebili once worked for Shiraz Electronic Industries (SEI), “placing orders with Iranian brokers who bought embargoed military goods from U.S. and European companies,” but struck out on his own as a broker in order to make more money. SEI itself then placed orders with him.
  • In 2004, Ardebili landed his first major deal, purchasing a radar-cloaking system worth $1 million from a “North American company.” He had it transshipped to Iran via Ukraine.

Undercover sting operation, aka “Operation Shakespeare”:

  • An ICE operative instrumental to the Ardebili sting, codenamed “Darius,” had established another ICE front company in a Baltic country. Darius, who spoke Russian, was tasked to reach out to Ardebili since Iranian traffickers were often suspicious of American military equipment brokers. In 2006, Darius and Ardebili began arranging a deal for night vision equipment. Ardebili told Darius to transship the items to Iran through the Baltic country.
  • The sting operation that led to Ardebili’s arrest started in 2007 when Ardebili approached Darius about buying U.S. phased-array radar units, later wiring a deposit for 1,000 of the units. To make the units, ICE agents partnered with a New England company, which produced 990 phony units and 10 actual units. Darius and Ardebili also discussed deals for radar, gyroscopes, F-4 fighter jet cockpit computers, night-vision equipment, and missile guidance parts.
  • ICE decided to lure Ardebili to Georgia to arrest him. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed off on the plan to arrest and extradite Ardebili.
  • Darius sought information from Ardebili about Iran’s nuclear intentions during the sting operation. He asked, “Are you looking for nuclear-weapons-making or just nuclear power?” Ardebili answered, “Everything.”

Ardebili’s modus operandi:

  • The files contained on Ardebili’s laptop, seized by ICE agents during his arrest, gave the United States new information about the needs and plans of the Iranian military.
  • Agents discovered Ardebili routinely made transfers from Tehran banks first to Germany and then to U.S. banks for payment to manufacturers.

Ardebili’s detainment and case:

  • Since the United States and Georgia did not have an extradition treaty, the process of transferring Ardebili to America was slow-moving and bureaucratic. Following his arrest, Ardebili spent four months in Prison No. 5, a crowded, rundown prison in Tbilisi that is routinely cited by Human Rights Watch and the European Commission for the Prevention of Torture.
  • Iranian diplomats lobbied the Georgian government and court to block Ardebili’s extradition.
  • U.S. agents discovered a purported Iranian plot to poison Ardebili before extradition. Once transferred to a Philadelphia prison, U.S. officials held him under a fake name for his protection until his trial began.
  • The U.S. attorney assigned to defend Ardebili found that case law supported the U.S. government view regarding trying a person for crimes committed in violation of U.S. law even if that person were lured and extradited from a third party country.
  • A family friend of Ardebili’s approached the Iranian foreign ministry to ask for assistance paying for legal bills. The ministry refused.

The aftermath:

  • After Ardebili’s arrest, ICE agents assumed his online persona and continued to try to conclude arms deals with U.S. companies. They caught some twenty companies that were willing to make illicit deals, and dozens more are under suspicion. Many cases remain sealed “because the indicted were fugitives, because they were cooperating as informants, or because the evidence had led to bigger fish.”
  • ICE decided in three dozen cases not to prosecute the U.S. companies because of a lack of proof that the companies knew the actual end user was Iran for the items they sold or planned to sell. Agents instead issued warnings to the companies and made visits to company officials to help improve their ability to look for suspicious enquiries and to obtain their commitment to help on future investigations.
  • ICE identified 30 Iranian front companies and 20 arms brokers from the information contained on Ardebili’s laptop.
  • ICE is conducting separate sting operations on three continents. It apparently has an operation in the works that is larger in scale than the Ardebili sting.
  • Ardebili is serving his prison sentence and regretted his guilty plea. He fired his lawyer and is appealing his sentence. He continues to seek funds for legal bills from the Iranian government.

For more on the case of Ardebili, see the ISIS report: “Inventive U.S. Sting Operation Catches Iran-Based Military Equipment Smuggler,” released in February 2010.

For more on Iran’s smuggling operations and recommendations on how to thwart them, see the ISIS report: “Busting the Members at the Core of Iran’s Smuggling Networks for Nuclear, Missile, and Conventional Military Goods.

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