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.

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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.