Publication: Middle East Author: Blanche, Ed Date published: March 1, 2010
THE SEIZURE IN BANGKOK OF A Georgia-registered Ilyushin II-76 cargo aircraft carrying 35 tons of arms, which global arms monitors say was bound for Iran, last December, and the trials of two arms dealers seeking to smuggle components for fighter jets and missiles to Iran have exposed how Tehran has stepped up its clandestine procurement of arms.
This has coincided with growing confrontation between the West and the Islamic Republic over its controversial nuclear programme, its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and Tehran's preparations for possible war with Israel, the United States - or both.
The Ilyushin's deadly cargo included rocket-propelled grenades, two mobile multiple rocket launchers, capable of firing devastating broadsides of 240mm rockets, and components for surface-to-air missiles, all valued at around $i8m. Mikhail Petukhov, the Belarussian pilot who served in the Soviet air force for 20 years, said he understood that he was carrying heavy equipment for oil drilling operations - a familiar cover in the armssmuggling business. The II-76 is a workhorse aircraft, designed to carry heavy machinery and land on rugged airstrips in remote regions - making it perfect for gunrunning.
The seizure at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport uncovered a paper trail of documentation through a web of phony companies and fake addresses from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, to New Zealand and the UAE that the gunrunners used to mask their movements and make it difficult for investigators to trace their illegal cargoes.
Mystery still surrounds the flight of the Ilyushin, which began in North Korea and ended at a refuelling stop in the Thai capital. The Russian-language flight manifest lists Mehrabad Airport outside Tehran as the cargo's destination. The airport includes a military air base. A Thai government report to the United Nations Security Council in late January said the arms were destined for Iran, although it is not clear whether they were to be moved elsewhere later.
According to Hugh Griffiths, who monitors arms trafficking for the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the aircraft was allegedly linked to two well-known gunrunners, Tomislav Dmanjanovic of Serbia and Viktor Bout of Russia.
As fate would have it, Bout, considered the most notorious of the current generation of gunrunners, was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 in an undercover US sting operation and is behind bars in the city's Klong Prem central prison - where the five Ilyushin crewmen are languishing - while he fights extradition to the United States.
Three days after the Ilyushin was seized in Thailand, Iranian arms dealer Amir Hossein Ardebili was convicted in a US federal court on 14 counts of violating US arms control regulations and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. He was arrested in October 2007 in a sting operation run by US agents posing as arms dealers.
On 23 November, veteran Belgian gunrunner Jacques Monsieur, a former intelligence agent known as "the Field Marshal", pleaded guilty in a US court to conspiracy to smuggle US-made J85-21 engines for F-5 fighter jets to the Islamic Republic. That underlined how one of the main sources of supply for Iran's clandestine procurement agents is "the Great Satan" itself. He remains behind bars in Alabama awaiting sentencing.
The swashbuckling Monsieur, who had escaped arrest before by claiming to work for the Central Intelligence Agency or France's DST, was arrested in New York on 27 August 2009, when he flew in from France en route to Bogota, Colombia.
Like Ardebili, he was the victim of a yet another US sting operation. He told the undercover agents he dealt with in Paris he planned to obtain an export licence, asserting the jet engines were destined for Colombia, when in fact they were to be secretly shipped to the UAE, and then on to Iran.
The Islamic Republic has had to conduct much of its arms procurement secretly, almost from the moment Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, armed to the teeth by the Americans, was toppled in January 1979. US-led international arms embargoes seriously curtailed the new republic's armsbuying ability.
It set up a global network to acquire arms and the means to make them, including the contentious nuclear programme that came later, using front companies often run out of Iranian embassies in Europe.
According to former US Justice Department official Pat Rowan, who tracked Iran's arms-buying operations, Tehran depends to a large extent on middlemen running "shady companies around the world. It's an extraordinary network they've developed to work around the web of sanctions that's intended to stop them."
This network was given great impetus by the 1980-88 war with Iraq, when ensuring a steady supply of weaponry became crucial for the infant republic's survival after Saddam Hussein invaded.
These days, the intelligence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards, which also control the defence industry, largely control the procurement network. They report to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to Claude Moniquet, president of the European Strategic Intelligence & Security Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank that monitors international terrorism, the network is still mainly run by the Iranian embassies in Berlin and Paris.
"The scientific counsellor of the embassy in Paris is a post which is allegedly occupied by an intelligence officer charged with industrial and scientific espionage," he said in a recent analysis. "He performs this function for the entire European Union with the exception of Great Britain."
In June 2005, the US Justice Department said that it had thwarted several plots that prevented arms worth $2.5bn, including 18 F-4 and 13 F-5 fighter jets, 20 helicopters and thousands of missiles of various types, reaching Iran. Among those indicted were a 50 -year-old US corporate lawyer based in London and a retired Israeli army general. It was the biggest arms bust US federai authorities had ever made.
In April 2009, Canadian police, tipped off by US authorities, arrested Toronto resident Mahmoud Yadegari on charges of trying to ship nuclear technology to Tehran. In September, two Dutchmen, Robert Kraaipoel and his son Neils pleaded guilty in Washington to exporting 290 items of US-made aircraft parts to Iran in violation of US embargoes between 2005 and 2007.
Ardebili, an Iranian engineer who has been tracked by US authorities since 2004, was a major target for the Americans and a notable catch in their worldwide campaign to cripple Tehran's arms procurement network. Court documents described Ardebili as a "prolific" arms buyer for Tehran.
He was one of several people trapped in a series of sting operations mounted by US authorities to snare Iranian agents. In October 2007, undercover agents of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service posing as arms buyers lured him to Tbilisi, capital of Georgia.
That was part of a major operation by 7,000 special agents to shut down international arms dealers and prosecute them. To catch Ardebili they set up "storefront" operations using dummy companies in Philadelphia, Boston and Europe in 2004 to lure him into a trap.
In 2005, Ardebili took the bait and contacted the Philadelphia front company. Contacts remained erratic, but in February 2007, via an undercover ICE front company in Europe, Ardebili sent an "urgent request" for hi-tech gyroscopes used in advanced aircraft and missiles, and "phase shifter" chips that electronically control guidance and target acquisition systems. He said he was acting on behalf of Iran's Defence Ministry.
Later he wanted computers for F-4 Phantom fighter jets the United States sold to the Shah of Iran in the 1970s before the Islamic Revolution toppled him.
These Vietnam-era aircraft have been largely grounded because international arms embargoes made it extremely difficult to find spare parts.
As ICE agents started to reel in Ardebili, he agreed to make them a down payment of $3,000, which he sent to a Delaware bank (which is why he was prosecuted in Wilmington, the state capital). Negotiations began to set up a face-to-face meeting. Ardebili wanted Dubai, through which much of Iran's clandestine business is conducted. He later agreed to Tbilisi.
Three years after the sting operation was launched, Ardebili was arrested.
He was secretly flown to the US in January 2008 and kept under wraps until the Americans announced his trial in Delaware last December.
In the nearly two years between his arrest and trial, Ardebili, whose laptop computer was seized with him, is said to have provided invaluable data on Iran's arms procurement used by US authorities to launch other investigations.
During his trial, prosecutors showed a secretly filmed videotape of his encounter with the agents posing as US and European businessmen in which he declared that Tehran was engaged in a high-stakes operation to acquire as much weaponry as it could "because they think the war is coming".
The arms seized aboard the Ilyushin at Bangkok and several cargo ships over the last year are not the type of weapons that Iran's military forces would need. Iran's defence industries turn out enough small arms and infantry weapons to keep these forces fully equipped.
So it is more likely the confiscated shipments were ultimately destined for Iran's militant proxies around the Middle East, particularly Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, there has been a marked increase in Iranian arms shipments to these organisations in recent years, in part to arm them to attack Israel if it launches threatened military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
On 29 January 2009, a US warship in the Gulf of Aden intercepted a Russian cargo vessel, the Monchegorsk, registered in Cyprus and flying the Cypriot flag.
It had been chartered by Iran's stateowned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and its cargo included containers full of artillery charges, high-explosive propellant for anti-tank weapons and items related to 125mm armour-piercing guns, that were destined for Syria, supposedly for delivery to Hizbullah.
Four months earlier, the US Treasury Department accused IRISL of illegal arms trafficking, alleging it "falsifies documents and uses deceptive schemes to shroud its involvement in illicit commerce". Britain banned private- sec tor companies from trading with IRISL in early October 2009.
As events unfolded, it became clear that IRISL plays a prominent role in Tehran's clandestine operation to supply arms to its allies across the Middle East.
The Monchegorsk was one of five ships caught in 2009 carrying large consignments of weapons that western intelligence believe were ultimately destined for Iran's allies, or for the Revolutionary Guard's Al Quds Force. That is an elite and secretive unit that deals with groups like Hizbullah and Hamas and handles clandestine operations abroad.
In July 2009, the French-owned, Bahamian-flagged freighter ANL Australia was seized in the UAE following a US tip-off. The vessel was bound for Iran with containers of North Korean small arms, rocket components, 2,030 detonators for 122mm rockets and enough explosive powder to arm thousands of short-range rockets; all were listed as oil drilling equipment.
In early October, the US Navy, tipped off by Israeli intelligence, intercepted the German-registered freighter Hansa India in the Gulf of Suez and found it was carrying seven containers filled with 7.62mm ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles. US officials said the weapons were from Iran and bound either for the Syrian military or for Hizbullah.
On 4 November, the Israeli navy intercepted the German-owned freighter Francop off Cyprus following a tip-off from US intelligence.
Naval commandos of the elite Flotilla 13 force found more than 300 tons of arms to Syria, presumably for delivery to Hizbullah. The cargo bore the imprimatur of IRISL. The arms had been shipped from the IRGC base at Bandar Abbas to the Egyptian Mediterranean port of Damiat aboard an Iranian vessel, then transferred to the Francop as oil drilling equipment.
The Francop was escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where 36 containers were unloaded to reveal 3,000 Katyusha rockets, 3,000 shells for recoilless guns, 20,000 grenades, half a million rounds of assorted ammunition and 9,000 mortar shells - enough, the Israelis maintained, to sustain Hizbullah for a month of combat against the Jewish state.