In October 2012 an Iranian man, Reza “Ray” Olangian, who is also an American citizen (since 1999) was arrested in Estonia and extradited to the United States, where he was recently charged with conspiring to obtain at least 200 surface-to-air missiles for Iran. The evidence against Olangian was considerable because the “Russian” arms broker that “Ray” was using to obtain the SA-24 (Igla-S) Russian missiles was actually a DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) who found out that some guy (Olangian) who said he was working for the Iranian Ministry of Defense was looking to buy American missiles. The DEA set up a sting and eventually Olangian revealed enough to get him arrested by the Estonians and extradited to the United States. Olangian also revealed a failed 2007 attempt to obtain similar missiles.
The DEA is often involved in taking down these Iranian arms smugglers because the DEA has agents all over the world operating against drug smugglers. The smuggling gangs often deal it all sorts of contraband and Iranians use contacts in these gangs to seek out weapons and military equipment international sanctions prevent Iran from importing legally. It’s often difficult to insert an agent from another agency (like the CIA or FBI) when a DEA operative comes across an Iranian arms smuggler, so it’s customary to let the DEA agent run with it until the arrests are made.
While the Olangian scheme failed, similar ones have been partially successful. For example, earlier this year a U.S. court sentenced two Singapore men to prison (for 34 and 37 months) after convicting them of illegally shipping American electronic items to Iran. This ended several years of investigations and legal proceedings. The case first became public in 2011, when American criminal investigators, in cooperation with their counterparts in Singapore tracked down and arrested five Singaporeans who had arranged for 6,000 American made radio frequency modules (RFMs) to be diverted to Iran. This was illegal and was orchestrated by an Iranian citizen who was never arrested. Between 2008 and 2010, 16 of these RFMs were found in unexploded roadside bombs in Iraq. It was eventually found that the RFMs, and other components of the bombs, had been smuggled into Iraq from Iran. Four companies were used to deceive American export controls so that the RFMs could be redirected to Iran. Singapore eventually agreed to extradite two of the men to the United States for prosecution. The other three were found not guilty (or not guilty enough) in Singapore.
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 after 2006 the Germans began really cracking down. For example, in 2008, a German citizen was prosecuted for running a weapons related smuggling operation. The defendant shipped 16 tons of high-grade graphite, used for making rocket nozzles to Iran in 2005-7. The defendant mislabeled the graphite as low-grade, which was legal to sell to Iran. Another ten tons of the high-grade graphite was caught by Turkish customs officials. Germany adopted stricter export rules for Iran in 2009 and promptly began seeking out and prosecuting those who ignored the ban. This did not stop the Iranians from using Germany as a source of forbidden goods. In response, Germany has been prosecuting people for exporting special metals and manufacturing equipment needed for ballistic missile warheads. All this slows down the Iranians but has not stopped them.
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 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.
One fact of all those purchases appears to be overkill because Iran must smuggle in its arms imports, as legitimate purchases are banned by international embargoes and that severely limits how much military material they can get. Thus it is not surprising that Iranian military procurement is less than 10 percent what their Arab neighbors are spending. But the Iranians have a long tradition of doing much with little when it comes to military equipment. In addition, the Arabs have a much less impressive combat record, especially in the last century. So the oil-rich Arabs are trying to equip their troops with a lot of the best stuff available and hope for the best.