November 15, 2012: Smuggling weapons components to Iran is a lucrative undertaking and apparently so attractive that even those who don’t need the money are attracted. Such was the case with Christopher Tappin who was arrested five years ago for trying to ship special batteries (for U.S. HAWK anti-aircraft missiles) to Iran via the Netherlands. Tappin could afford the best lawyers and he deployed them to avoid extradition to the United States. He lost that battle last February, then hired some pricey American lawyers who fought the prosecutors and lost. Tappin made the best of a bad situation and pled guilty (to avoid a max imprisonment of 35 years) and was sentenced to a fine and 33 months in prison. The plea deal allows him to serve most of his sentence back in Britain.
Tappin got involved with two other smugglers back in 2005, but one of these turned out to be an informant for the U.S. government. Tappin, who made most of his money in the shipping business, thought it was going to be easy money. It wasn’t. This kind of smuggling employs techniques that Iran has used successfully for a long time. Many Western suppliers would simply charge a much higher price to cover the risk of being found out and prosecuted. There are, as the Iranians know well, a lot of Western suppliers and businessmen who are willing to take the risk. But as the risk of getting caught and the penalties increase more and more Westerners abandon this lucrative business to the Chinese.
China opposes the sanctions on Iran but goes through the motions of observing them. China has always been the ultimate source of forbidden military and nuclear research items for Iran. This includes Western gear, even stuff from the United States. These American items are usually obtained by Chinese trading companies, who serve as a one-stop-shopping source for many countries. The trading companies break American laws when they ship some types of restricted (by American regulations) gear to embargoed nations. This is done using forged documents and bribes. These Chinese exporters have little fear of punishment because the Chinese government refuses to discipline its wayward firms or extradite anyone to the United States. Trading companies can be hurt in other ways, as U.S. regulators can reach just about every other country (except China) using the enormous U.S. presence in the international banking system. But the Chinese traders consider these fines a cost-of-doing-business and charge extra for dirty deals. Thus, as the sanctions on Iran grow more formidable, prices Iran must pay go up and the Chinese profits increase even more.
The war on Iranian arms smuggling has been intensifying in the last decade. Most countries cooperate but not all. While Turkey has been getting cozy with Iran, the Turks still enforce 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 that era has passed. 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 often 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.