On a grainy undercover videotape recorded in a hotel room in Tbilisi, Georgia, an Iranian arms merchant chats with two Philadelphia salesmen who have brought samples of their military wares.
The merchant, Amir Hossein Ardebili, who has flown from Tehran to make a deal, patiently answers the Americans' questions. The radar microchips? Needed for antimissile protection. The sophisticated computers? Essential to "launch the F-4" fighter.
All of it, he says flatly, is destined for the Iranian military "because they think the war is coming." Against the United States.
The videotape, recorded in October 2007 by undercover federal agents from Philadelphia, was released yesterday as the case against Ardebili was unsealed in federal court in Wilmington - nearly two years after the Iranian was secretly brought to the United States.
U.S. officials said the case, first reported by The Inquirer on Wednesday, offers a window into Iran's covert effort to obtain U.S. military technology to bolster its armed forces.
"There is no question that there is an orchestrated effort by the government of Iran to acquire weapons in violation of our laws," said John Morton, assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security for Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). "This is serious business, not a flash in the pan. Unfortunately, there's a whole network of these guys out there trying to get weapons and sophisticated technology, and not just for Iran."
ICE undercover agents in Philadelphia and Europe ran the three-year sting, which was kept secret as federal agents used data retrieved from Ardebili's laptop to launch dozens of Iranian arms-sales investigations against U.S. and overseas companies.
The court filings unsealed yesterday, including the videotape, show that Ardebili, a former Iranian government procurement officer, was arrested in Georgia in early October 2007. After legal proceedings in Georgia, Ardebili was secretly extradited to the United States in January 2008 and quietly jailed in Philadelphia. A prominent Wilmington defense lawyer, Edmund D. Lyons, was appointed to represent him.
During a closed hearing in Wilmington in May 2008, Ardebili pleaded guilty to violating the arms embargo, the arms export control laws, conspiracy, and money laundering.
He is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 14 before U.S. District Judge Gregory M. Sleet in Wilmington. According to federal sentencing guidelines, Ardebili could face more than 10 years in prison.
Lyons, his lawyer, has argued in a court filing that Ardebili should be sentenced to time served. He said Ardebili had admitted he broke U.S. law but did so while in Iran, where his actions are not considered a crime.
Lyons also said the Iranian had suffered in U.S. custody because he is housed in a special unit of the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center, where he is confined 23 hours a day. He has lost teeth and suffers from depression, the lawyer said.
Federal officials characterized the case as serious enough to warrant more prison time.
"Ardebili's job was to illegally" acquire military gear "in preparation for war with the United States," said Ed Bradley, the Philadelphia agent in charge of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service.
Ardebili negotiated the purchases of 1,000 state-of-the-art radar shifters, 10 gyro-chip sensors used in advanced aircraft applications, and two digital air computers for an F-4 aircraft, prosecutors said.
In addition, according to a court filing by U.S. Attorney David Weiss and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall, Ardebili made "tens of thousands" of requests via e-mail for American-made military hardware, from "aviation to sonar to radar."
The prosecutors said the Iranian arms merchant had acquired roughly $1 million worth of American hardware annually, most of it from U.S. companies.
Ardebili was lured by two ICE undercover operations, one based in the United States and one in Europe, U.S. officials said.
Much of the negotiation was done via e-mail or instant message.
In May 2006, for example, an ICE agent e-mailed Ardebili, writing in broken English to disguise himself: "What you can say can perhaps be good business, but I stress to you what we are do is ILLEGAL in US."
Ardebili replied the next month. To avoid the U.S. embargo law, he suggested that the military parts be shipped to Europe, then forwarded to Iran. "This is long time we are in the business and working in full security system. . . . [No one will] know end user located in Iran."
By 2007, Ardebili was negotiating by e-mail to buy the radar components and night-vision equipment, the U.S. government said. The undercover agents offered to sell more than 1,000 radar microchips for use in Iran through a shipping company in Azerbaijan. After protracted negotiations, Ardebili agreed to make a deposit on the radar components and wired $3,000 to the ICE undercover company's bank in Delaware, which is why the case was prosecuted in Wilmington.
Although Ardebili wanted to meet the salesmen in Dubai, the undercover ICE agent lured him to Georgia.
In one of their last instant-message chats, the ICE agent wrote to the Iranian arms merchant: "Our future is going to be big. I sometimes believe you do not know how big will our deals be."