The Times: When Amir Hossein Ardebili first appeared in a US court, the proceedings were secret and the windows were blacked out. The Times
Giles Whittell in Washington
When Amir Hossein Ardebili first appeared in a US court, the proceedings were secret and the windows were blacked out. When he was sentenced this week to five years in jail several city blocks around the courtroom were closed to traffic because of threats to the defendant’s life.
The quiet city of Wilmington, Delaware, had never seen anything like it — and the increasingly dangerous business of circumventing sanctions to supply arms to Iran may never be quite the same again.
Ardebili, a 36-year-old Iranian arms smuggler who introduced himself to undercover agents as “Alex Dave”, was sentenced on Monday after pleading guilty to soliciting tens of thousands of pieces of sensitive military hardware, including spare parts for ageing fighter jets and missile guidance systems. His case gave a glimpse into the network of “procurement agents”, ostensibly freelance but operating for the Iranian Government, who specialise in helping Western suppliers to break the US arms embargo on Iran that has been in place since 1990. Washington is seeking new ways to shut down the network as its patience runs out with Tehran’s failure to respond to President Obama’s offer of diplomatic engagement.
Breaking down in tears, Ardebili pleaded for mercy from Judge Gregory Sleet at his sentencing on Monday. He was rewarded with a far lighter sentence than the 12 to 14 years sought by prosecutors. With time off for good behaviour and the two years he has served in Georgian and US jails, he could be free by 2011.
But even then, his troubles will be far from over. “I don’t think he can go back to Iran,” his lawyer, Edmund Lyons, said. “I don’t think his life would be safe because no matter what he did they are going to assume he has betrayed them.”
Ardebili was arrested in hotel room in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, in 2007 after a three-year undercover sting operation by US immigration and customs agents based in Philadelphia. They set up websites for fake businesses, posing as arms dealers willing to defy US law. By May 2007 the agents were in contact with him by phone and e-mail to make payment arrangements for radar phase shifters that enable missiles to lock on to their targets. It was then that he revealed his real name, later agreeing to meet in Tbilisi rather than Dubai.
The Gulf state is a nexus of the Iranian arms trade and has received an estimated $250 billion (£154 billion) in Iranian investment in recent decades. The US agents are thought to have argued for Georgia because the country’s close relations with Washington boosted their chances of extraditing Ardebili to the US.
He was extradited last year, by which time US officials had uncovered a host of leads on his confiscated laptop. Last month a Belgian arms dealer, Jacques Monsieur, pleaded guilty to plotting to smuggle F5 fighter engine parts to Iran. In September a company based in the Netherlands admitted shipping aircraft parts to Iran via Europe and the Gulf, and this week federal agents said they were investigating whether an Italian company that bought three Bell helicopters in Texas planned to sell them to Iran.
Whether these investigations are related to the Ardebili case remains unclear, but Tehran “wants him back pretty bad”, Mr Lyons said. “I believe he was the first person who came out of Iran and had knowledge of their procurement policies — and unfortunately for Iran he came out with his laptop.”