August 2, 2012: On July 26th, an Iranian-born man (Andro Telemi), who had become an American citizen, pled guilty in an American court to violating sanctions on Iran. Telemi and an Iranian citizen (who pled guilty last year) had been caught three years ago. The two had tried to export missile components to Iran. There was a third man, also an Iranian, involved, but he apparently escaped back to Iran.
Iran has been smuggling forbidden technology for decades, usually from the United States and Europe. But they have even managed to obtain high-tech gear from Israel, a country they have sworn to destroy. All this smuggling employs techniques that Iran has used successfully for a long time. The Western supplier usually gets a much higher price to cover the risk of being found out and prosecuted. There are, as the Iranians know well, a lot of Western suppliers who are willing to take the risk.
The war on Iranian arms smuggling has been intensifying in the last decade. Most countries cooperate, but not all. While Turkey has been getting cozy with Iran, the Turks still enforce international trade sanctions against Iran. But as Turkey encourages its companies to do more business with Iran there are more opportunities to smuggle forbidden goods to assist Iranian nuclear weapons and ballistic missile projects. Iran takes advantage of this whenever possible.
Germany was once a favorite place for Iran to buy equipment for their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. No longer. For example, four years ago, a German citizen was prosecuted for running a weapons related smuggling operation. The defendant shipped 16 tons of high-grade graphite, used for making rocket nozzles, to Iran in 2005-7. The defendant mislabeled the graphite as low-grade, which was legal to sell to Iran. Another ten tons of the high-grade graphite was caught by Turkish customs officials. Germany adopted stricter export rules for Iran five years ago and promptly began seeking out and prosecuting those who ignored the ban. More recently, Germans have been prosecuted for exporting special metals and manufacturing equipment needed for ballistic missile warheads.
Ever since the U.S. embargo was imposed in 1979 (after Iran broke diplomatic protocol by seizing the American embassy), Iran has sought, with some success, to offer big money to smugglers who can beat the embargo and get needed industrial and military equipment. This is a risky business and American and European prisons are full of Iranians, and other nationals, who tried, and often failed, to procure and deliver forbidden goods. The smuggling operations are currently under more scrutiny, and attack, because of Iran's growing nuclear weapons program. But the Iranians simply offer more money and more smugglers step up to keep the goodies coming.