Federal agents operating undercover in Maryland snared an Iranian citizen who sought to buy and export fighter planes and other restricted equipment for use by the Iranian military, authorities said yesterday.
Abbas Tavakolian, 58, of Tehran admitted in federal court in Baltimore yesterday that he attempted to acquire components for a rapid-fire aircraft gunnery system and other equipment. Prosecutors said negotiations for the sales began in January 2004, when a second defendant, now a fugitive, contacted a Maryland business that was secretly operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
According to Tavakolian's plea agreement, those negotiations culminated in a Dec. 10 meeting in the South Pacific. There, the agreement says, Tavakolian delivered $100,000 in cash in exchange for the gunnery system components and other items. He then directed that they be marked as agricultural equipment and delivered to Tehran, it says. They were later intercepted.
Tavakolian was arrested the next day after he met with the agents and "sought to acquire several complete F-14 fighter aircraft for future shipment to Iran," the agreement says.
A federal indictment returned in Baltimore later charged him and the second defendant, Hossein Vaezi, with arms export violations and other crimes. Exporting certain items designated as militarily sensitive without a license is illegal, and it is the practice of the U.S. government to deny licenses when the exports are destined for Iran.
Tavakolian pleaded guilty to money laundering and attempting to illegally export arms. Under the terms of the agreement, both sides will ask that he be sentenced to 46 to 57 months in prison.
Joseph Evans, one of Tavakolian's attorneys, identified Vaezi as Tavakolian's son-in-law. He described Tavakolian as "something of a middle man" in the arms transaction.
"There's no suggestion that he's involved in the planning and the high-level logistics involved in this," Evans said. "He went to inspect the items, and he carried messages, and he was ensnared."
Tavakolian met with undercover agents in Europe in June to inspect a sample of the gunnery system components, prosecutors say. He then allegedly wired a series of down payments for what was to be a $380,000 transaction.
Neither the indictment nor the plea agreement makes clear what connection, if any, either man has to the Iranian government. The agreement said the men's conversations with undercover agents "were geared to the acquisition of military use technology from the United States for use by the Iranian military."
Attempts to reach representatives of the Iranian government yesterday were not successful. A message left at Iran's United Nations mission in New York was not returned.
Prosecutors said the gunnery system component sought by Tavakolian is used to feed ammunition into a six-barrel gun on an F-4 or F-14 fighter plane. The defendants sought 100 of the "inner drums" that serve that purpose, prosecutors said.
A defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, Tom Donnelly, said the gunnery system is an "incredibly lethal" version of the classic Gatling gun that "just spews out an incredible amount of rounds."
Donnelly said the Iranian government maintains an old fleet of F-14 fighter planes that it received from the United States before the shah fell during the revolution in 1979. "If they're looking for spare parts for their aircraft, that might be part of the explanation" for the transaction involving Tavakolian, he said.
U.S. authorities have brought a series of recent cases involving export of arms and technology to Iran.
In January, prosecutors in Connecticut charged an Iranian-born businessman with illegally smuggling equipment to support his native country's ballistic missile program. In February, a British national was indicted in Washington on charges that he illegally tried to export an experimental single-engine plane from the United States to Iran.
And in April, a Pennsylvania corporation was ordered to pay civil and criminal penalties for exporting miniature photo labs to Iran without the required licenses.
"In the post-9/11 world, keeping sensitive U.S. weapons technology from falling into the wrong hands has never been more important," said Cynthia O'Connell, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Baltimore.