By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006
LOS ANGELES -- The Iranian government has intensified efforts to illegally obtain weapons technology from the United States, contracting with dealers across the country for spare parts to maintain its aging American-made air force planes, its missile forces and its alleged nuclear weapons program, according to federal law enforcement authorities.
Over the past two years, arms dealers have exported or attempted to export to Iran experimental aircraft; machines used for measuring the strength of steel, which is critical in the development of nuclear weapons; assembly kits for F-14 Tomcat fighter jets; and a range of components used in missile systems and fighter-jet engines.
"Iran's weapons acquisition program is becoming more organized," said Stephen Bogni, acting chief of the Arms and Strategic Technology Investigations Unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "They are looking for more varied and sophisticated technology. Night-vision equipment, unmanned aircraft, missile technology" and weapons of mass destruction.
Federal agents say that as tensions increase over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program, so does the concern that Iran might strike at U.S. forces and personnel stationed in Iraq and other countries if the United States or its allies take military action against that program. In recent weeks, Tehran has announced new weapons systems, including missiles it claims to be invisible to radar and torpedoes too fast to be avoided, although U.S. experts have questioned Iran's assertions about its capabilities.
The Bush administration says it is committed to a diplomatic solution to address its concerns that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran contends that it wants only to generate electricity. But, in recent months, it has flouted U.N. Security Council demands that it abandon key parts of its program, and, last week, it announced that it had successfully enriched uranium.
Calls for comment to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations were not returned.
"Most of the material the Iranians are seeking is aging technology, but it's technology that could still hurt the United States and its allies today," said Serge Duarte, acting special agent in charge of ICE investigations in San Diego. That city and Los Angeles are believed to be the two centers of the illicit Iranian weapons trade.
In the 1960s and '70s, the United States sold some of its most advanced weapons systems to Iran, when it was led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iran's air force received F-14 Tomcats, F-5 Tigers, F-4 Phantoms, C-130 transport planes and helicopters manufactured by Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky. U.S. sales ended with the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran's war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 helped deplete Iran's forces. U.S. contacts with Iran were further restricted in 1995 when President Bill Clinton signed an order effectively prohibiting almost all trade and investment between the two countries.
Since that time, businesses with ties to Iran have been on a hunt in the United States for anything that can keep Iran's military machine moving, federal agents said. Since 2002, there have been 17 major cases involving the illegal shipment of weapons technology to Iran, outpacing the 15 cases involving China, the other main nation seeking U.S. military goods, according to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security. Since 2000, the U.S. government has instituted 800 export investigations involving Iran.
Although arms dealers work nationwide, many of the Iranian cases have connections to Southern California, which remains a center for aeronautics and is home to the biggest concentration of Iranians outside of Tehran. Some neighborhoods of Los Angeles, such as Brentwood on the west side and parts of the San Fernando Valley, are jokingly referred to as "Irangeles."
Federal agents said the main method for obtaining U.S. technology is not through espionage but through simple business deals. "We're not talking about 007 running around trying to steal these parts," Bogni said. "We're talking about the Iranian government putting out shopping lists to brokers and greedy businessmen."
Two recent cases illustrate the challenges facing federal agents.
ICE agents on March 16 arrested Mohammad Fazeli, an American of Iranian descent, after he allegedly tried to export a box of pressure sensors to Iran via the United Arab Emirates. The small sensors, manufactured by Honeywell, are normally used in black-box, data-recording devices for aircraft. Federal agents said they can also be used in bombs and missile-guidance systems.
Fazeli was captured as he allegedly sought to mail the package out of the United States.
"It's not illegal to possess these parts. It's only illegal to export them. That's the challenge," said Louis Rodi III, chief of ICE's national security unit in Los Angeles. "Arms dealers take possession of the products here and then ship them themselves. So we have to be on them like a glove."
Bogni said many weapons dealers are still not aware of U.S. regulations prohibiting the export of controlled technology. Thus, since fall 2002, ICE agents have conducted 12,500 seminars with U.S. weapons manufacturers and exporters.
A day after Fazeli was arrested, another man, Arif Ali Durrani, a Pakistani, was convicted in federal court in San Diego on five counts involving the illegal export of fighter-jet components to Iran.
Durrani was indicted for selling, among other things, nozzles for engines used in the F-5s, the workhorses of the Iranian air force. David Pinchetti, an agent with the Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service who worked on the case, said Durrani purchased the nozzles for $1,500 apiece and sold them to Iranian Aircraft Industries Co. for $48,000 each.
Of interest to federal authorities since the 1980s, Durrani was a flamboyant dealmaker with a house in California valued at $2.5 million and a fleet of fine cars, on both the West and East coasts, according to Steven Arruda, a former ICE agent. Durrani once showed up in a Porsche to receive delivery of a helicopter part from a manufacturer in Connecticut. When the crate would not fit in his car, he junked the crate and threw the part in the back of his roadster, taking it directly to a freight forwarder at Kennedy International Airport, Arruda said.
Durrani was arrested in 1986 for illegally exporting Hawk missile parts to Iran. A few weeks later, while Durrani was in jail awaiting trial, the Iran-contra scandal broke, revealing that Reagan administration officials had approved weapons sales to Iran and were using the proceeds to fund guerrillas fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua.
Durrani's defense contended that he had been working for the U.S. government. The jury convicted him anyway in April 1987, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Durrani left the United States in the late 1990s for France and then resurfaced in a Mexican beach community near the U.S. border, where his U.S.-born wife opened a Mexican restaurant and he started a furniture factory. Durrani also resumed his weapons technology business, using two partners in the United States to buy and ship products wanted by Iran's air force, federal agents said.
On June 15, in the middle of the U.S. investigation of Durrani, the Mexican government deported him to Pakistan, federal agents said. Acting on a tip, they met his plane, which was going through Los Angeles, and arrested him. Durrani's two co-conspirators subsequently pleaded guilty to violating U.S. arms export guidelines. Durrani, who was found guilty by a federal jury of those charges, is scheduled to be sentenced in June and could face 45 years in prison.
Durrani's attorney, Moe Nadim, vowed to appeal the verdict.