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Israeli Arms Dealer Draws Harsh Verdict

June 18, 1998|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A millionaire Israeli businessman was convicted Wednesday of aiding an enemy nation and endangering Israel's security through the sale of chemical weapons components to Iran.

Nahum Manbar, who was arrested last year during a visit to Israel from his home in France, denied the charges against him but acknowledged doing business with Iran in the early 1990s. He termed his conviction "scandalous."

In a harshly worded ruling, a three-judge panel described Manbar as a "liar" and a man driven by greed in his dealings with Iran between 1990 and 1995. Prosecutors charged that the businessman received $16 million for selling information and materials to Iran that could be used in the manufacture of deadly mustard and nerve gases.

The ruling was believed to be the most severe in a national security case here in more than a decade, since nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu was convicted in 1988 on charges of espionage and betraying the country. Vanunu, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison, disclosed details of Israel's secret nuclear weapons program to a British newspaper.

The decision also came as Israel and the United States are waging a major diplomatic battle to keep Iran from obtaining technology from Russia and elsewhere that would enable it to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The court put off sentencing in the case until July 15. Manbar faces a maximum term of life imprisonment, and his attorneys said Wednesday that they were already preparing an appeal.

Analysts said it was difficult to assess the damage Manbar may have done to the international effort to stop the transfer of advanced weapons technology to Iran; a portion of the indictment and judgment against him remained sealed, for reasons attributed to national security.

"But quite clearly, he violated some of the rules governing the sale of sensitive materials to Iran," said Efraim Inbar, a political scientist and the director of the Begin and Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University.

Iran maintained relatively friendly ties with Israel during the rule of its former leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but it became an unofficial enemy after his overthrow.

Over the years, Inbar said, some Israeli arms dealers have continued to do business with Iran, perhaps in arrangements winked at by successive Israeli governments in the interest of maintaining at least a distant relationship with a potentially dangerous foe. Manbar must have crossed a line drawn by Israel's security services, Inbar said.

"This conviction is sending a signal that Israeli arms dealers should be careful in their dealings with Iran," he said.

Speaking to reporters after his conviction, Manbar hinted that he believed he had received a green light for his weapons sales from Israeli officials, saying that if he is guilty, an unnamed director general of the Defense Ministry is too.

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