WILMINGTON, Del. – An Iranian man who secretly pleaded guilty to plotting to ship sensitive U.S. military technology to Iran will be sentenced this month, federal authorities said Wednesday as they also revealed that the suspect told an undercover investigator Iran's leaders believe war is coming.
Amir Hossein Ardebili faces up to 140 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges that include conspiracy, money laundering, smuggling and arms export control violations. His case was the latest example of what U.S. officials have described as an intense effort by Iran to evade export controls and acquire critical military technology amid a long-running standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
John Morton, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, noted just last week an alleged Belgian arms dealer pleaded guilty in federal court in Alabama to charges of conspiring to export fighter jet engines and parts to Iran.
"There is no question that there is an orchestrated effort by the government of Iran to acquire weapons in violation of our laws," he said.
"Unfortunately, there's a whole network of these guys out there, ... and not just on behalf of Iran," Morton added.
Prosecutors said the guilty plea and other details have been kept secret until now because of an ongoing investigation.
Ardebili's defense attorney, Edmund Lyons, did not immediately return a telephone message Wednesday.
Ardebili gave a stark explanation for why he was trying to buy so many different weapons parts, including technology that would help protect Iran from missile attacks.
"By his own admission, Ardebili was assisting Iran in preparing for war with the United States," prosecutor David Hall wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Court papers also said during a 2007 meeting with an undercover agent, Ardebili said he wanted so much material so "the government (of Iran) could defend ... Because they think the war is coming."
Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hinted of link between the Ardebili case and that of three young Americans seized by Iran after they crossed the border from northern Iraq. The U.S. and their families said the three are innocent hikers who strayed into Iran accidentally, but Iran has accused them of espionage and could put them on trial.
At a Nov. 9 news conference, Ahmadinejad said Iran's judiciary would deal with the American hikers — then noted that Iran accuses the United States of holding several of its citizens.
According to court papers, Ardebili worked as a procurement agent for the Iranian government and acquired thousands of components, including military aircraft parts, night vision devices, communications equipment and Kevlar. Federal authorities targeted him in 2004 after he contacted an undercover storefront set up in Philadelphia to investigate illegal arms trafficking.
Weiss said that in working with undercover agents, Ardebili's primary interest was in obtaining electrical components with military applications.
Authorities said Ardebili had made wire transfers to bank accounts in Delaware and Massachusetts as part of an effort to illegally acquire the technology.
Ardebili also tried to obtain replacement computer systems to update Iran's fleet of aging F-4 fighter aircraft, authorities said.
After years of telephone and e-mail communications with the undercover agents, Ardebili finally agreed to meet with them in the Caucasus nation of Georgia, where he was arrested in October 2007 and his laptop computer was seized.
"There are a number of transactions that are disclosed on the defendant's laptop," Weiss said.
Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 14.