Iran — The Iranian Weapons Bazaar

Sanc­tions haven’t stopped Tehran’s import or export efforts 

The gov­ern­ment of Iran is sub­ject to Unit­ed Nations sanc­tions, which include the ban­ning of all weapons sales “direct­ly or indi­rect­ly from its ter­ri­to­ry,” because of its refusal to halt its reput­ed nuclear pro­gram. Iran con­tin­ues to insist that that the Unit­ed States and oth­er West­ern nations are false­ly accus­ing the Islam­ic repub­lic of try­ing to devel­op nuclear weapons. Wash­ing­ton bans trad­ing with Tehran because, accord­ing to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, Iran har­bors ter­ror­ists and par­tic­i­pates in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass destruc­tion.

There are many excep­tions to the ban, and Wash­ing­ton and oth­er gov­ern­ments fre­quent­ly turn the screws anoth­er time on the sanc­tions. Tehran, for its part, has repeat­ed­ly said that the sanc­tions are large­ly inef­fec­tive; some offi­cials main­tain the moves have actu­al­ly helped Iran­ian indus­tries devel­op at a faster pace. 

789th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company
There is no doubt that many of the dead­ly weapons being used against Amer­i­can troops in Iraq orig­i­nat­ed in Iran, said a spokesman for U.S. Force Iraq at Camp Vic­to­ry in Iraq in July 2011. Above, U.S. per­son­nel pre­pare muni­tions for destruc­tion dur­ing con­trolled det­o­na­tion oper­a­tions on For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Delta in Iraq in 2009. The 789th Explo­sive Ord­nance Dis­pos­al Com­pa­ny con­ducts such det­o­na­tions.
Click to enlarge

Be that as it may, sanc­tions cer­tain­ly haven’t defanged Iran. The Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency (IAEA), a U.N. agency, report­ed in May that its own inves­ti­ga­tions reflect “the pos­si­ble exis­tence in Iran of past or cur­rent undis­closed nuclear-relat­ed activ­i­ties,” such as “pro­duc­ing ura­ni­um met­al … into com­po­nents rel­e­vant to a nuclear device” and “mis­sile re-entry vehi­cle redesign activ­i­ties for a new pay­load assessed as being nuclear in nature.” 

Skirt­ing Inter­na­tion­al Sanctions

Iran also pub­licly boasts of the advances in its mis­sile pro­grams. In June, British For­eign Min­is­ter William Hague not­ed that Iran had test­ed “mis­siles capa­ble of deliv­er­ing a nuclear pay­load.” Not only has Iran man­aged to skirt sanc­tions on its appar­ent nuclear and obvi­ous mis­sile pro­grams, but there is con­sid­er­able evi­dence that it is pro­lif­er­at­ing those tech­nolo­gies as well as con­ven­tion­al weapons to sus­pect groups and nations.

In late June, Dan­ish ship­ping giant Maer­sk, the largest ship­ping con­tain­er com­pa­ny in the world, sus­pend­ed oper­a­tions at a num­ber of Iran­ian ports because of new sanc­tions by Wash­ing­ton. A week ear­li­er, the U.S. black­list­ed the Tide­wa­ter Mid­dle East com­pa­ny and issued a ban on Amer­i­can firms from deal­ing with the port oper­a­tor, charg­ing it with being an arm of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, which has been linked to ter­ror­ism and arms-traf­fick­ing. This may dis­rupt mat­ters for a while, but part­ners always seem to be found that are not sub­ject to U.S. sanctions. 

The U.S. Trea­sury Dept. also alleged links between Iran Air and ille­gal weapons ship­ments to ter­ror­ists in Syr­ia, and to ship­ments by that nation­al air­line of high-tech parts for Tehran’s mis­sile and nuclear programs.

The Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps (IRGC), or Pas­daran, was fash­ioned by for­mer Iran­ian Supreme Leader Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni fol­low­ing the 1979 rev­o­lu­tion. Its weapons-traf­fick­ing has become an open secret and the group is wide­ly seen as the effec­tive pow­er behind the sus­pect­ed nuclear pro­gram. Evi­dence also con­tin­ues to accu­mu­late link­ing the IRGC to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons to ter­ror­ist and insur­gent groups. 

Inter­na­tion­al sanc­tions have slowed Iran­ian pro­cure­ment, but have hard­ly shut it down. Some crit­ics of the Oba­ma administration’s Iran­ian poli­cies, say­ing they are not strin­gent enough, con­tin­ue to call for more pres­sure on those com­pa­nies based in oth­er coun­tries that are still doing busi­ness with the Iran­ian ener­gy sec­tor – in par­tic­u­lar, China.

Mean­while, Iran is arguably the most arms-pro­lif­er­at­ing nation in the region, if not world­wide. Since around 2002, inves­ti­ga­tors have dis­cov­ered that it has set up an exten­sive sup­ply chain of front com­pa­nies in Europe. These in turn have been found to pro­vide the regime with defense equip­ment as well as nuclear and oth­er technologies. 

Iran’s appar­ent objec­tive is to become a nuclear weapons state (NWS), catch up with Israel and attain region­al hegemony. 

The Long and Wind­ing Deliv­ery Road

Nation­al mil­i­taries as well as ter­ror­ist groups can obtain weapons and oth­er defense materiel through com­plex sup­ply chains, often stretch­ing across con­ti­nents. These trans­ac­tions may involve third-par­ty ship­ments, ille­gal traf­fick­ing oper­a­tions, con­cealed man­i­fests and/or front companies. 

In the case of Iran, some of the mer­chan­dise in ques­tion direct­ly con­tra­venes sanc­tions against send­ing weapons. Oth­ers are dual-use prod­ucts – capa­ble of being uti­lized for civil­ian or mil­i­tary pur­pos­es. Some of these might be used in a civil­ian nuclear ener­gy pro­gram, but could also be used for nuclear weapons research, devel­op­ment and production.

As part of their efforts to cir­cum­vent sanc­tions, Ira­ni­ans have become adept at hid­ing weapons on the mer­chant ships of oth­er nations under false man­i­fests. These illic­it car­goes are very hard to spot amid the vast amount of seaborne trade. 

As a result, even when sus­pi­cions have long been raised about ille­gal deal­ings, Iran has been able to acquire mate­ri­als and exper­tise from, among oth­ers, Rus­sia and North Korea, as well as the transcon­ti­nen­tal pro­lif­er­a­tion net­work that was run by A.Q. Khan, wide­ly con­sid­ered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. 

Import­ing Restrict­ed Goods

When the Unit­ed States was build­ing its atom­ic bomb dur­ing World War II, and home­grown tal­ent was not avail­able for a cer­tain task, the head of the Man­hat­tan Project, Gen. Leslie Groves, is reput­ed to have said: “We bring ‘em in.” These days, many com­po­nents, raw mate­ri­als and exper­tise are sim­i­lar­ly import­ed by would-be nuclear weapons states with evolv­ing industries. 

In March 2011, it was revealed that dur­ing the pre­vi­ous six months, a pair of con­sign­ments of sus­pect­ed nuclear mate­ri­als and weapons bound for Iran had been inter­cept­ed by South Korea and Sin­ga­pore, where author­i­ties have acquired a rep­u­ta­tion for coun­ter­ing arms smuggling. 

Accord­ing to a report from the U.N. Iran sanc­tions com­mit­tee, around 400 tubes suit­ed for nuclear use were found in a jet car­go at Seoul air­port in Decem­ber 2010. A U.N. diplo­mat also told Agence France-Presse that alu­mini­um pow­der that could be used for rock­ets turned up in Sep­tem­ber 2010 on a ship in Sin­ga­pore har­bor. Each ship­ment was said to be head­ed to Iran.

Some of the ille­gal trade goes the oth­er way. Also in Sep­tem­ber 2010, as much as 7 tons of RDX high explo­sives were impound­ed from a ship that had docked in Italy; the mate­r­i­al was report­ed to be en route from Iran to Syria.

The arms trade is not restrict­ed to the Mid­dle East. Niger­ian author­i­ties said they seized 13 con­tain­ers of weapons, includ­ing rock­ets and grenades, in Lagos in Octo­ber 2010. The con­tain­ers had report­ed­ly been loaded in an Iran port and were bound for sep­a­ratist rebels in the Casamance region of Sene­gal, an area long plagued by violence.

Israeli com­man­dos inter­cept­ed a Liber­ian-flagged car­go ship off the coast this March en route to Egypt, con­cerned that the ship was car­ry­ing arms to Gaza. Under the cot­ton and lentils list­ed on the man­i­fest of the Ger­man-owned and French-oper­at­ed Vic­to­ria were 60-mm and 120-mm mor­tar shells as well as Chi­nese-designed C‑704 anti-ship mis­siles. Such mis­siles have range of 35 km (22 mi). Chi­na report­ed­ly designed the mis­sile for assem­bly in Iran.

The seized ves­sel had come from a Syr­i­an port that had just been vis­it­ed by Iran­ian war­ships. The weapons, with an advanced radar mis­sile guid­ance sys­tem, are in ser­vice in Iran. Also found by the com­man­dos were instruc­tion book­lets – writ­ten in Far­si – and which pic­tured the “Nasr” mis­siles, the name of the weapon in Iran. 

Sup­ply­ing Terrorists 

Iran is wide­ly known as a sup­port­er of ter­ror­ist groups. Indeed, the U.S. State Dept. calls Iran the most active of state spon­sors of ter­ror­ism, aid­ing a vari­ety of groups with weapons of vary­ing degrees of sophis­ti­ca­tion and firepower. 

Hezbol­lah – the pow­er­ful Shi’ite Mus­lim group based in Lebanon – and Hamas – the Sun­ni Mus­lim extrem­ists based in the Gaza Strip – have both been recip­i­ents of Iran­ian-made Katyusha and Kas­sam rock­ets. Such weapons have wreaked hav­oc on Israeli towns and vil­lages for decades. 

The Shi’ite insur­gents in Iraq have long been using explo­sive­ly formed pen­e­tra­tors (EFPs), which are capa­ble of blast­ing through all but the most heav­i­ly armored vehi­cles. Iran is known to have trained these groups in their use. 

That is just part of the Iran­ian effort in Iraq. Tehran would like to claim cred­it for help­ing to dri­ve out the Amer­i­cans, say U.S. offi­cials. Ear­li­er this July, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon Panet­ta acknowl­edged pub­licly that weapons sup­plied by Iran had become a “tremen­dous con­cern” for Wash­ing­ton of late. “We’re see­ing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they’ve real­ly hurt us” Panet­ta said in Baghdad.

In Afghanistan, it is becom­ing clear that Tehran wants to play on both sides of the street. In June, Defense Min­is­ter Ahmad Vahi­di vis­it­ed Kab­ul osten­si­bly to bol­ster defense ties with the Afghan gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, Iran is also arm­ing the Tal­iban that oppos­es the gov­ern­ment in Kabul. 

In March, British For­eign Sec­re­tary William Hague con­demned what he called Iran’s “com­plete­ly unac­cept­able” behav­ior, a state­ment pro­voked by a seizure by British spe­cial oper­a­tions forces of arms intend­ed for the Tal­iban; chem­i­cal analy­sis showed the rock­ets had come from Iran, said British offi­cials. Such rock­ets would extend the range for the Tal­iban attacks on Afghans and NATO troops.

There is con­sid­er­able proof that the Iran­ian sup­ply chain extends to the Tal­iban fight­ers in Afghanistan. This includes Iran­ian train­ing in con­struc­tion and use of EFPs and oth­er high-qual­i­ty con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary hard­ware. Some of the equip­ment is report­ed­ly being smug­gled to Iran from Euro­pean com­pa­nies and indi­vid­ual traders.

Evad­ing Trade Rules

A recent case, report­ed by BBC’s flag­ship sta­tion Radio 4, involved a secu­ri­ty con­sul­tant con­vict­ed for send­ing sniper scopes to Tehran. Intel­li­gence offi­cials at HM Rev­enue & Cus­toms (HMRC) were alert­ed to spe­cial deliv­er­ies of 100 spe­cial­ized rifle sights. These “hunt­ing scopes” had been shipped from Ger­many to the U.K. The scopes had trav­elled via Dubai, a well-used nexus for transhipments.

British cus­toms offi­cials ques­tioned the size of the order for any oth­er rea­son than for weapons. While the trad­er claimed they were legit­i­mate exports for Dubai, com­put­er evi­dence proved oth­er­wise: they were des­tined for Iran. The cus­toms offi­cials con­tact­ed oth­er Euro­pean coun­ter­parts who found more branch­es of the Iran­ian pro­cure­ment network. 

The doc­u­men­tary fol­lowed the involved trail. Wire taps in Milan revealed a ship­ping net­work being run from Italy. Inter­cept­ed emails uncov­ered fus­es being trad­ed for high explo­sives, which can be deployed against tanks and oth­er armoured vehi­cles. It turned out that a defense pro­cure­ment com­pa­ny was being run by an Iran­ian intel­li­gence oper­a­tive going to and from Italy and act­ing as a cen­tral inter­me­di­ary for the deals. Front com­pa­nies were estab­lished, in a round­about fash­ion, to import the rifle optics from Europe into Tehran. 

The arrange­ments involv­ing the sniper sights brought inves­ti­ga­tors back to the orig­i­nal deal­er based in the U.K. In short, the Ger­man-made sights, which have turned up on Tal­iban rifles, could be used to shoot Ger­man soldiers. 

Some of the dam­age done by ille­gal weapons deals has been indi­rect. Just this month, for instance, Cyprus was rocked by an explo­sion at a mil­i­tary base that killed 12, includ­ing the navy chief. It led to the res­ig­na­tions of the defense min­is­ter and mil­i­tary chief. Riots ensued on the island. Accord­ing to a Cypri­ot offi­cial, a brush fire had ignit­ed more than 90 con­tain­ers of explo­sives. The materiel had been con­fis­cat­ed in 2009 from a ship that was trav­el­ling from Iran to Syr­ia, in vio­la­tion of U.N. sanctions.

Weapons trad­ing can take some odd turns. In May, for exam­ple, mil­i­tary trans­port heli­copters that had come from Israel were seized by Span­ish police just as they were ready to be export­ed to Iran from ware­hous­es in Madrid and Barcelona. The U.S. man­u­fac­tured Bell-112 trans­ports, pre­vi­ous­ly used by the Israeli air force, were appar­ent­ly sold by five Span­ish busi­ness­men to Iran. The Spaniards and three Ira­ni­ans were arrest­ed, and the mil­i­tary trans­port heli­copters seized. Israel had used the air­craft until the 1990s. 

In this case, the con­vo­lut­ed nature of the deal­ings makes it pos­si­ble that some of the par­ties were unaware of the even­tu­al des­ti­na­tion. The Israeli Defense Min­istry signed a con­tract in March 2005 to sell the sur­plus Bell heli­copters to a Swedish com­pa­ny, ESP. In so doing, Israel also had obtained clear­ance from the Pen­ta­gon; the air­craft were report­ed­ly intend­ed for fire-fight­ing duties in Scan­di­navia and Ger­many. But the next year, ESP trans­ferred own­er­ships of six of the heli­copters to a Span­ish com­pa­ny, again sup­pos­ed­ly to fight fires. That trans­fer was again approved by the U.S. Dept. of Defense. The Span­ish buy­ers, appar­ent­ly, made the deal to Iran.

* * *

Even legit­i­mate exporters face a pletho­ra of rules and reg­u­la­tions and long lists of goods that may be restrict­ed. In many coun­tries (includ­ing the U.K.), there are gaps that can per­mit deal­ings with cer­tain dual-use equip­ment. These loop­holes can also be exploit­ed by unscrupu­lous deal­ers. Bills of lad­ing do not always reveal the even­tu­al des­ti­na­tion and the true end-users.

Efforts to com­bat the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons require inter-agency coop­er­a­tion, inter­na­tion­al exchanges of intel­li­gence and effi­cient cus­toms, trade and bor­der offi­cials. When the entire globe is the mar­ket­place, this is a huge chal­lenge. Ter­ror­ists know this – as does Tehran. 

Sources: “The Iran Con­nec­tion,” File on 4, BBC Radio 4, June 14, 2011; “How Did Israeli Heli­copters Almost Get Sold To Iran?,” Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post, June 26, 2011; “U.S. Tar­gets Ports, Air­line In New Iran Sanc­tions,” JTA, June 24, 2011; “Diplo­mats Say New Iran Mate­ri­als Seized,” Tim Witch­er, Agence France-Presse, March 17, 2011; “Navy Inter­cepts Ship With Iran­ian Arms Bound For Hamas,” Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post, March 15, 2011; “Hague Fury As ‘Iran­ian Arms’ Bound For Tal­iban Seized,” BBC, March 9, 2011; “Iran Defence Chief Makes Rare Vis­it To Afghanistan,” Dawn, Pak­istan, June 19, 2011; “Iran Is At War With Us,” Andrew C. McCarthy, Nation­al Review Online, July 9, 2011; “US Tells Maer­sk To Halt Food Ship­ments To Iran,” Euronews, July 1, 2011; “U.S. Paving The Way For Iran Hege­mo­ny,” Robert Mag­in­nis, Human Events, July 12, 2011; “Navy Chief, Base Com­man­der Among 12 Killed At Cyprus Naval Base Explo­sion,” Asso­ci­at­ed Press, July 11, 2011.

© 2011 Mil­i­tary Periscope 

About The Author:

Andy Oppenheimer

Andy Oppen­heimer is an inde­pen­dent UK-based spe­cial­ist in CBRNE (chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, radi­o­log­i­cal, nuclear weapons and explo­sives) and coun­tert­er­ror­ism. He is Edi­tor of Chem­i­cal & Bio­log­i­cal War­fare Review and G2 Defence Intel­li­gence & Secu­ri­ty, for­mer Edi­tor of Jane’s Nuclear, Bio­log­i­cal and Chem­i­cal Defence, NBC Inter­na­tion­al, and Jane’s World Armies, and is a Mem­ber of the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Bomb Tech­ni­cians and Inves­ti­ga­tors. His book IRA: The Bombs and the Bul­lets — A His­to­ry of Dead­ly Inge­nu­ity (Irish Aca­d­e­m­ic Press, 2008) is regard­ed as the sem­i­nal work on the mil­i­tary cam­paign of the Irish Repub­li­can movement. 

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