Procurement: Iran Seeks Daring Middlemen

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December 31, 2018: In late 2018 the U.S. offered a $3 million reward for the capture of Hossein Ahmad Larijani who, from 2007 through 2008 organized the illegal procurement and shipment to Iran of 6,000 American made RFMs (Radio Frequency Modules). Larijani recruited four Singaporean men to assist him in the smuggling operation and in 2011 they were arrested in Singapore while Larijani fled back to Iran, where he currently lives. Larijani is an Iranian citizen who was never arrested. Before and after 2011 Larijani is believed to have traveled to Turkey, Hong Kong and China to arrange smuggling efforts for Iran.

Three of the Singapore men were extradited back to the United States and by 2013 were tried and convicted of assisting Larijani in his smuggling scheme involving the RFMs. One of the Singapore suspects could not be extradited and is still in Singapore. The three who were convicted served short (up to four years) prison terms and returned to Singapore. The other man was found not guilty (or not guilty enough) in Singapore.

The RFM case first became public in 2011, when American criminal investigators, in cooperation with their counterparts in Singapore, tracked down and arrested five Singaporeans who had arranged for the RFMs to be purchased from an American firm and shipped to Singapore for (according to the Singapore firm run by Larijanis’ co-conspirators) use in a Singapore telecommunications project. This was a legitimate reason for these dual-use electronic components to be sold to a Singapore firm. Instead, Larijani provided the address of an Iranian firm that his Singapore partners could ship the RFMs to.

The smuggling operation was revealed after 16 of these RFMs were found in unexploded roadside bombs in Iraq between 2008 and 2010. These RFMs enabled bombs to be detonated remotely (from up to 60 kilometers away) using an encrypted radio signal. It was eventually found that these RFMs, and other components of the bombs, had been smuggled into Iraq from Iran. The American manufacturer of the RFMs was contacted and provided the documents used by the Singapore men to deceive American export controls so that the RFMs could be eventually redirected to Iran. Based on that evidence Singapore agreed to extradite three of the men to the United States for prosecution. Because Larijani remained active organizing smuggling operations for Iran, mainly via his East Asia connections in China, he was kept on the FBI “wanted” list and with the addition of the reward he has been moved up on the list (to “more wanted” if not “most wanted”).

The war on Iranian arms smuggling has been intensifying since 2003. Most countries cooperate, but not all. While Turkey has been getting cozy with Iran, the Turks still enforce some 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 but after 2006 the Germans began cracking down. For example, in 2008, 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 in 2010 and promptly began seeking out and prosecuting those who ignored the ban. This did not stop the Iranians from using Germany as a source of forbidden goods. In response, Germany has been prosecuting people for exporting special metals and manufacturing equipment needed for ballistic missile warheads. All this slows down the Iranians but has not stopped them and there continued to be opportunities for Iranian businessmen like Larijani to make deals.

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 failed to procure 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. It was believed that the 2015 treaty with Iran (along with the Russia, China, America, Britain, France and Germany) that lifted most of the sanctions on Iran in return for Iran ceasing illegal arms programs (mainly the nuclear weapons effort) would end the Iranian smuggling. It didn’t and the Iranian backed smugglers have continued operations. In early 2018 the United States withdrew from the 2015 and is again going after the Iranian smuggling networks, where now even busier than they were before 2015.

 


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