Iranian official Manouchehr Mottaki criticized the U.S. for prosecuting… (SAEED KHAN, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — An Iranian arms trafficker was sentenced in Delaware on Monday to five years in prison after being snared in a global undercover investigation.
Amir Hossein Ardebili, 36, pleaded guilty last year to violating U.S. arms control laws by trying to purchase components for Iranian fighter planes and missile guidance systems. His case offers a rare look into the faceoff between Washington and Tehran that is increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War.
Ardebili does not fit the profile of high-rolling arms merchants who have been arrested in similar stings around the world. An engineer, he lived in Iran with his parents. Until undercover Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents lured Ardebili to a sit-down in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, he had never left his homeland.
Nonetheless, Ardebili did millions of dollars in business as a covert supplier of the Iranian military, according to court documents. During a secretly videotaped meeting in a dingy Tbilisi hotel room in October 2007, he told agents posing as American and European businessmen that the stakes were high.
"If the United States come to war," Ardebili said, "the government [of Iran] can defend. . . . Because they think the war is coming."
According to anti-terrorism officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing security issues, the case is representative of Tehran's attempts to circumvent U.S. trade restrictions that date to the 1990s. Iran has claimed a right to develop nuclear energy, but the U.S. and its allies have said Tehran is seeking to develop weapons.
Tips from American companies that deal in electronic technology with potential military uses brought Ardebili to the attention of U.S. investigators. His exclusive client, according to court documents, was the Iranian government.
"Ardebili was involved in the acquisition of a wide range of components including military aircraft parts, Kevlar, night vision devices and communications equipment," the documents said. "He sent thousands upon thousands of solicitations to United States companies, requesting quotes [on] tens of thousands of components, many used in military applications."
Iran needs U.S. military hardware to update the large portion of its arsenal that was acquired before the 1979 revolution brought religious extremists to power. The Iranian defense industry encourages bids from a host of private companies that serve as fronts to conceal illegal procurement, officials said.
Asked if Ardebili was an instrument of the Iranian government, one anti-terror official said: "Yes and no. The Iranian government can't go out and procure these items here, so it encourages these companies instead. It's a cottage industry. He was in competition with other brokers."
In another elaborate undercover operation this year, ICE arrested Jacques Monsieur -- a major Belgian trafficker who, authorities said, supplied Iran for years. Agents in luxury hotels in Paris and London negotiated deals for F-5 fighter jet engines, then lured Monsieur to a Central American country that agents declined to identify. That country expelled him, and he was arrested when his return flight to Belgium stopped in New York, officials said.
Monsieur pleaded guilty in Alabama last month to conspiracy to illegally export F-5 engines and parts. He faces up to five years in prison.
Unlike Ardebili, Monsieur was a suave former spy with high-level connections around the world. "He was in a different league than Ardebili," the anti-terror official said. "Monsieur was more out in the open. He was notorious."
In the Ardebili case, agents set up dummy companies in Philadelphia, Boston and an unnamed country in Europe that offered the kinds of electronic components in which the Iranian dealer specialized.
He contacted them in 2004, the start of intricate negotiations conducted via e-mail and phone calls that mixed technical terms with broken English.
"What you can say can perhaps be good business, but I stress to you that what we are do is ILLEGAL in US," an undercover agent, posing as a European supplier, wrote in May 2006, according to court documents.
"This is long time we are in the business and working in full security system," Ardebili responded reassuringly. "End user never know end user are located in Iran."
By the fall of 2007, Ardebili had made deals to buy radar components for missile systems, sensors for aircraft and a computer for F-4 fighter jets. Payment was to be made through a bank in Wilmington, Del.
Agents posing as arms dealers set up a meeting in Georgia -- a country close to Iran where they thought they would have a good chance of extraditing Ardebili. He showed up, with his father in tow, and was devastated when U.S. and Georgian investigators slapped handcuffs on him, officials said.
"I wouldn't characterize him as a toughened criminal, though he knew what he was doing was illegal," the anti-terror official said.