U.S. Military Technology Being Exported Illegally to Iran

Pentagon investigators thought they had discovered a major shipment of contraband when they intercepted parts for F-14 Tomcat warplanes headed to Iran, via FedEx, from Southern California. Under U.S. sanctions since its 1979 revolution, Tehran had been trying for years to illegally obtain spare parts for the fighters, which are used only in Iran.

But when agents descended on the Orange County, Calif., home of Reza Tabib, the 51-year-old former flight instructor at John Wayne Airport who sent the shipment, they were astonished to discover 13,000 other aircraft parts, worth an estimated $540,000, as well as a list of additional requests by an Iranian military officer and two airplane tickets for Tehran.

Iran has been trying for years to obtain parts for F-14 Tomcat warplanes. A growing number of cases of illegal exports of military equipment are under investigation, the Justice Department says. Many are destined for groups or countries that target the United States and its allies. Caught red-handed, the Iranian-born American citizen pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced to two years in prison.

The Tabib tale is among a growing array of cases either under investigation or being prosecuted for illegally exporting sensitive military equipment, from missile parts and body armor to nuclear submarine technology, according to the Justice Department. Many are destined for groups or countries that target the United States and its allies, such as night-vision equipment destined for Iran and for Lebanon's Hezbollah, and components for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, used against U.S. troops in Iraq.

At least 108 countries have "full-fledged procurement networks that work through front companies, joint ventures, trade delegations and other mechanisms to methodically target our government, our private industries and our universities as sources of this material," Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein told reporters last week.

The Pentagon last year reported a 43 percent increase in suspicious foreign contacts with U.S. defense firms.

The biggest offenders are Iran and China, U.S. law enforcement officials say. Since 2000, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have launched more than 600 investigations into illicit Iranian military procurement efforts and more than 540 investigations into illegal exports of restricted U.S. weapons technology to China. Additional investigations have been launched by other U.S. agencies, with overall cases doubling in recent years.

"The majority of U.S. criminal export prosecutions in recent years have involved restricted U.S. technology bound for these two nations," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. Recent prosecutions involved illegal exports of stealth missile technology, military aircraft components, Naval warship data, night-vision equipment and other restricted technology for Iran or China.

Some of the most audacious cases involve Iran. Through reverse engineering, Iranian engineers have produced only about 15 percent of the parts needed for the F-4, F-5 and F-14 warplanes -- made famous in Tom Cruise's 1986 "Top Gun" -- that have been the mainstay of Iran's air force since the days of its monarchy, U.S. law enforcement officials say. Tehran has also been trying to acquire parts for Boeing 707s, Lockheed C-130 transports, and Cobra, Chinook and Sikorsky helicopters, they say.

This month, Abraham Trujillo and David Wayne were charged in Utah with attempting to export F-4 and F-14 parts to Canada that were ultimately destined for Iran. Last month, Dutch-based Aviation Services International was charged in Washington, D.C. with illegally exporting U.S. aerospace-grade aluminum and 290 aircraft-related components to Tehran. And in July, the founder of Vash International Inc. was charged in New York with illicitly exporting F-5 and F-14 parts.

Airplane components are not Iran's only export target, however. In August, Seyed Maghloubi pleaded guilty in California to plotting to illegally export 100,000 Uzi submachine guns to Iran, via Dubai.

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