By Jerry Seper
U.S. and Austrian law-enforcement authorities have disrupted a suspected plot to illegally supply the Iranian military with thousands of advanced military night-vision systems from the United States, arresting two Iranian nationals on charges of attempting to violate Austrian export laws.
Michael J. Garcia, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary, announced yesterday that Mahmoud Seif and Shahrzad Mir Gholikhan were arrested Tuesday in Vienna, Austria, after a meeting during which they took possession of a U.S. helmet-mounted military night-vision system they intended to illegally export to Iran.
Mr. Garcia, who heads the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the arrests followed a two-year investigation by ICE, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) and the Austrian Federal Agency for State Protection and Counterterrorism, known as the Bundesamt Fuer Verfassungsschutz.
He said the Vienna transaction was the first in what was to be the purchase of 3,000 military night-vision systems from the United States for illegal export to Iran. The equipment ultimately was to be used by the Iranian military infantry.
ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said the new night-vision systems, known as Generation III, are among the most advanced in the world and are capable of amplifying virtually any light source, including faint starlight. Used by U.S. forces around the globe, Mr. Boyd said the systems provide a significant advantage to U.S. troops over opponents in nighttime combat.
Because of their sophistication, the systems are classified as U.S. Munitions List items and their export from the United States is prohibited without a valid export license from the State Department, he said. Additionally, Mr. Boyd said, all exports to Iran are prohibited under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
The arrests are the latest in a series of ICE cases involving military equipment bound for Iran.
"Keeping sensitive U.S. weapons technology out of the hands of state sponsors of terror is a priority for ICE and the Department of Homeland Security," Mr. Garcia said. "Sophisticated night-vision systems allow U.S. troops to 'own the night,' giving them a key advantage over their opponents during nighttime combat.
"In the wrong hands, these night vision systems pose a threat to our troops around the world," he said.
Defense Department Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz said the "lives of American war fighters can be placed at direct risk through illegal transfer of military components" in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. He said his agency's mission is to deploy DCIS investigative resources, as necessary, to prevent any company from circumventing U.S. controls on technology transfer.
Mr. Boyd said the government's investigation began in August 2002, when ICE and DCIS agents in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received information that a person in Tehran was attempting to buy military-grade night-vision systems in the United States for illegal export to Iran. The original requests, he said, focused on the procurement of up to 3,000 helmet-mounted night-vision systems.
Mr. Boyd said the unnamed person specified that the systems were to be used by the Iranian military infantry.
In September, Mr. Seif and Mr. Gholikhan began negotiations to buy the night-vision systems from the United States, saying they would receive the first system and additional systems in Austria for export to Iran, Mr. Boyd said. The two men also noted their direct contacts with the Iranian government, he said.
Austrian authorities were contacted and later determined that such transactions would violate their nation's export-control laws. The Austrian Federal Agency for State Protection and Counterterrorism then joined the investigation.
Mr. Boyd said Mr. Seif and Mr. Gholikhan arrived in Vienna, Austria, to pick up the first military night-vision system and were arrested by Austrian agents. At the time, he said, they gave undercover agents a list of other items they wanted to purchase from the United States.