Shadow War: Hunting Iranian Arms Brokers
From Yardley, U.S. agents crafted an intricate, high-stakes pursuit of weapons dealers. It took five years and spanned the globe.
YARDLEY, APRIL 2004
To capture a global arms smuggler, you can't just throw up a website, install some phone lines, and expect everything to fall into place.
Brokers buying sensitive weapons and technology for the Chinese, North Koreans, and Iranians are too smart for that. You need a bricks-and-mortar shop, a place buyers can eyeball, an office where foreign scouts and spies can wander in the front door unannounced - or at least view via satellite on Google Earth.
In 2004, undercover agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, created such a storefront along a tree-lined road in the Philadelphia exurb of Yardley.
HOW THIS SERIES WAS REPORTED
The leased office, sandwiched between a chiropractor and a dentist, would become the launching point for one of the most ambitious national security investigations in ICE's brief history.
The mission was risky, rare, and expensive. Over the same years, even the CIA failed repeatedly with similar endeavors.
The agents decorated the Yardley office like any import-export business. Beside computers and desks they scattered fliers and business cards with the company logo. They hung military posters, and stacked copies of Jane's Fighting Ships and other encyclopedias of modern warfare.
They created a public-records trail, complete with backdated state and tax documents. They left fake invoices strewn across a desk. They wired the place with cameras and microphones, and staffed it with two undercover Homeland Security agents, including a 32-year-old agent from South Jersey named Patrick Lechleitner.
A former Virginia cop, Navy analyst, and National Security Agency investigator, the affable Lechleitner floated easily among the law enforcement, military, and intelligence communities.
Now, he played two roles. In Yardley, he was an undercover arms broker, trolling Internet bulletin boards for smugglers and fielding queries from shady foreigners. Elsewhere in the Philadelphia area, he interviewed American contractors who called in tips about suspicious overseas requests.
On April 20, 2004, a cool, cloudless morning, Lechleitner looked into such a tip. He met a local factory owner who'd received a query, supposedly from Dubai, for jet-fighter parts.
"He seemed almost offended by the bluntness of the e-mail," Lechleitner recalled, especially the dubious point of origin. "We both knew that it had to be Iran."
Lechleitner studied the owner, a first-generation American. The agent needed his help. But could he trust him? Could he risk letting him in on the undercover operation? Yes, he decided, he'd have to, if he wanted to catch the Iranian.
Lechleitner told the owner to string the guy along.
"Tell him to contact me," the agent said, handing up a card from the Yardley undercover company. "Tell him we might have what he needs."
On any battlefield, the most ominous threats to U.S. soldiers, sailors and pilots are American-made weapons and military technology in enemy hands.
America's foes have long deployed clandestine networks of spies and black market dealers to acquire U.S. technology.
Iran, bordering Iraq and Afghanistan and within striking distance of Israel, has long posed a serious threat to U.S. national security.
Since the 1980s, the United States and Iran have engaged in a dicey cat-and-mouse game: law enforcement agents chasing a murky cast of middlemen secretly arming what the White House regards as a rogue nation.
Iran is desperate for American-made weapons and technology because its crumbling military infrastructure is largely American - the legacy of billion-dollar U.S. arms sales during the 1960s and '70s. Its F-4 and F-14 fighter jets, for instance, remain hobbled by outdated avionics.
Iran isn't on the prowl merely for spare parts. The country seeks to outfit its military with all the vital components required to fight a 21st-century war - radar, sonar, Kevlar vests, night-vision scopes, cockpit computers, and missile-guidance technology.
On a modern battlefield, high-tech components the size of a silver dollar can tip the balance of power.
Without precision U.S. gyroscopes and accelerometers to run internal navigation systems, Iran's missiles - which may someday carry nuclear weapons - can't hit their targets. Without U.S. microchips, Iran's radar can't see American and Israeli fighters in the sky.
U.S. officials say Iran is already furnishing America's enemies, funneling military gear to the Taliban, Hezbollah, and Iraqi insurgents. According to U.S. documents and officials, American-made electrical components purchased by Iranian middlemen have been discovered in weapons used by Hezbollah against Israel and inside a handful of the roadside bombs, or IEDs, responsible for so many deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It seems like no matter where you turn - IEDs, technology, missiles - you can see Iranian fingerprints," said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee for the Mideast region. "It is a clear and present danger, a real urgent threat."
Since the 1980s, federal agents have arrested dozens of people smuggling arms to Iran. Still, they've struggled to understand more than the broad outlines of the Iranian procurement network.
When the Yardley case began in 2004, U.S. agents had never nabbed an insider - someone living in Iran with intimate knowledge of the country's military needs, plans, and suppliers - and brought him to the United States to face justice.
"A case like this, it's a roll of the dice - dealing with people you can't even see, halfway around the world, not knowing what you have," said ICE Special Agent in Charge John Kelleghan. "But it's a roll you need to take, because Iranian arms brokers are going to keep buying what they're buying - and eventually cause U.S. soldiers to die."
SHIRAZ, IRAN, JUNE 2004
The man looking to buy U.S. military components came from the Iranian city of poets, wine, and flowers.
Amir Hossein Ardebili lived in Shiraz, a sprawling southern city of 1.2 million people with grand public gardens, not far from the great Persian ruins of Persepolis and the Zagros Mountains.
A freelance arms broker, Ardebili used the Internet to buy and smuggle embargoed commercial and military technology from U.S. companies. He had but one customer: the Iranian government.
Ardebili was no patriot, no political ideologue, no religious radical. He was a capitalist. A businessman.
At 29, he was unmarried and lived with his parents, a symbol of his commitment to family but also of his struggling finances. His parents, a retired bureaucrat and a stay-at-home mom, had sold the family jewelry to pay his tuition at Shiraz University.
Ardebili had come of age with the Islamic Republic. He was too young to remember the 1979 revolution, but old enough to have lost friends during the eight-year war with Iraq, a conflict that began when he was in elementary school.
"I'm a person who hates war," he said years later. "I'm coming from a country which had a lot of sacrifice."
Ardebili and his friends did not necessarily like Iran's leaders, but they feared what they viewed as U.S. warmongers. Conspiracy theories abounded in Shiraz - most pressing, that President George W. Bush and Israel had engineered the 9/11 attacks. After all, Bush had lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
After graduation, Ardebili had taken a good job with the state-run Shiraz Electronic Industries (SEI), placing orders with Iranian brokers who bought embargoed military goods from U.S. and European companies.
The arms black market followed a complex path called transshipping. The contraband moved from the United States to a trusted port in Europe or the Mideast, perhaps Amsterdam or Dubai, then was relabeled and re-shipped to a dealer inside Iran, and from there to SEI and the Iranian armed forces.
Ardebili excelled at the work, but earned just $650 a week. In early 2004, he struck out on his own, hoping to make more money. "And it is better to be your own boss," he recalled.
Ardebili opened a tiny office in Shiraz. SEI and other state-run companies began faxing requests, and he began querying U.S. companies.
Online, Ardebili gave himself an Americanized name, "Alex Dave," and used a forwarding address in Dubai. He rarely told U.S. companies where he was, and they rarely asked.
Sometimes, American companies would stiff him. They'd realize he was in Iran and keep his deposit money. What he did not fear was the U.S. government. He was, after all, living in his own country. What right did the United States have to enforce its laws in Iran?
Ardebili e-mailed hundreds of U.S. companies, from Boston to San Diego. He sought all kinds of military gear: night-vision equipment, gyroscopes, state-of-the-art microchips, and stealth technology. Most firms ignored him, but enough responded. By spring, Ardebili was negotiating with a dozen U.S. manufacturers.
By midsummer, Ardebili was closing his first $1 million deal - for a radar-cloaking system from an unwitting North American company. To get around the U.S. embargo, the paperwork falsely set the destination as Ukraine.
Ardebili began corresponding with an arms salesman named Patrick in Yardley, Pa. The Iranian wrote that he was looking for radioisotopes. Patrick sent him price quotes.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, NOV. 20, 2005
Undercover storefronts are fine for establishing black market bona fides, but a vouch always helps - an associate who can assure the criminal that you can be trusted.
ICE agent Patrick Lechleitner's best vouch was an established British arms dealer. In late November, the agent joined the Brit at the prestigious Dubai Air Show.
The Mideast's largest exhibition of aircraft drew 35,000 visitors, from royals and corporate VIPs to underworld arms dealers. Adding to its allure, Dubai is a tax-free, no-questions-asked port.
At the convention, Lechleitner, bald and boyish, and his British vouch, elderly and suave, met with three arms brokers - Iranians seeking helicopters, grenade launchers, and Predator-style drones.
Lechleitner left Dubai without securing any deals, but was nonetheless encouraged. Counterproliferation investigations moved slowly. CPI cases took years, not months. The haggling could be tedious and frustrating, just as in legitimate business.
As he flew home, the ICE agent evaluated all his targets. One in particular, Alex Dave, captured his curiosity. Though he'd declined to meet in Dubai, Alex Dave was prolific, submitting so many requests for price quotes - RFQs - that another agent finally said of him, "The guy's got so many quotes, he's like Shakespeare."
The name stuck. Alex Dave became known as Shakespeare, the case, Operation Shakespeare.
SHIRAZ, NOVEMBER 2005
Amir Ardebili, a.k.a. Alex Dave, was more prolific than the ICE agents realized.
The week of the Dubai Air Show, he wired a $7,000 deposit to a New England broker for precision gyroscopes, devices that can be used to guide missiles.
He also closed a $1 million deal for "Swimmer Detection Sonar," technology to evade U.S. submarines.
Equally important, he'd met a girl.
Negine Sharifi was a Tehran college student with intense brown eyes and a lively wit, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a biophysicist. Like Ardebili, she was confident, ambitious, nonreligious. He was 30, she was 20.
Ardebili was her first love. She wasn't looking for a husband when they met. Only a handful of Iranian students go to college, and she felt she couldn't waste the opportunity. To be with Ardebili, she'd have to transfer to Shiraz, no small feat.
Yet when Ardeblili proposed on the phone one afternoon, she was surprised by the speed of her response.
"There were a lot of boys around me," she recalled. "And a lot of girls around Amir, because he was in a good situation. Good family. Good job. He was really a nice boy. ... He was a good package - not too handsome, but a good job, good family, very polite."
Sharifi didn't ask many questions about her fiancé's business. But she appreciated the irony:
Her man made money keeping the enemy at bay with its own weapons.
FRANKFURT, GERMANY, AUGUST 2006
"Darius" sat in a cubicle at the U.S. Consulate.
The undercover ICE agent eyed the growing stack on his desk: receipts, diplomatic notes, investigate reports, bills, e-mails.
Did spies fiddle with so much paperwork?
"Sometimes, the U.S. government is like one giant Dilbert cartoon," Darius liked to say.
Despite the paperwork hassles, Darius was proud of the fake U.S. arms company he'd created in a Baltic country. Unlike ICE's undercover Yardley site, the European one had required overcoming two nations' bureaucracies.
Darius had worked for the U.S. government for three decades, having entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1976. During the Cold War, he learned Russian to board Soviet ships entering U.S. waters. He joined the U.S. Customs Service in 1991, mostly working undercover, first chasing California drug dealers and, more recently, Middle Eastern arms dealers.
Darius loved Customs' independent culture, where creativity was encouraged. The overseas storefront had been his idea, not some supervisor's. He knew most arms smugglers wouldn't deal directly with Americans. It was too dangerous.
Initially, he'd targeted Middle Easterners smuggling stolen Army humvees from Iraq and Kuwait. Darius drew a few nibbles, but nothing solid.
Now, months later, Darius found himself hunting a different kind of prey.
He'd been contacted by ICE agents in Philadelphia who'd been stalking an Iranian arms broker. The Philly agents, having learned of Darius' overseas storefront, wanted to use it to target someone they knew only as Alex Dave. The Iranian, they figured, might become more trusting if he believed he was dealing with a Russian arms broker in Northern Europe.
"Hell, yeah," Darius replied, eager to put his storefront to use.
To get started, the agents asked their British vouch to send Alex Dave a message, urging him to contact Darius.
SHIRAZ, SEPTEMBER 2006
The Persian month of Shahrivar was good to Amir Ardebili.
He married Negine with great fanfare in Tehran, followed by a large party in Shiraz. They moved into their own two-story home, paid for with profit from his burgeoning business. He also began negotiating with a new client, a Russian named Darius, someone with the potential to take his career to the next level.
Darius worked directly with U.S. partners and, from the look of his website and contacts, he was a player. He'd come recommended by a trusted British broker and, even better, worked with a company Ardebili had been e-mailing for years, in Yardley, Pa.
After a few introductory e-mails, Darius called Ardebili's cell phone. They spoke in English.
"I send you a note about transshipping night vision," Ardebili told him, according to a tape of the call. "This is very, very serious business for Iranian armed forces."
Darius pretended to fret about the U.S. embargo, but Ardebili offered an easy solution: Ship the U.S. gear to Europe, then re-ship to Iran. As he later e-mailed, "Working via your company is perfect way."
Darius replied cautiously. "What you say can perhaps be good business, but I stress to you what we are do is ILLEGAL in U.S. Would original source of goods know they go to Iran? With more discussion it is possible we do good business, but patience and good planning keep us out of jail!"
Relax, Ardebili told Darius, he'd done this before. "This is long time we are in the business and working in full security. ... Never know end user are located in Iran."
WILMINGTON, APRIL 2007
The prosecutor's cell phone rang as he drove to work south on I-95.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hall recognized the number. It was Darius.
Hall answered. "My friend, what's up?"
"All hail, Dave Hall!" Darius boomed from Germany. "Death to the enemies of Dave Hall! Victory!"
Hall smiled. He enjoyed Darius' wry humor. The guy was an original. Brilliant, motivated, cocksure, a workaholic. Darius was perhaps an acquired taste. The undercover ICE agent spoke his own language, an eclectic mix of American, Russian, and Vulcan.
Hall himself was unusual, a star prosecutor working international cases from the Justice Department's tiny office in Wilmington. He'd once prosecuted a $300 million case involving antitank-missile sales to South Africa.
At 52, he was a black belt in karate and a rifle sharpshooter, held three Ivy League degrees, and had written a book on the War Powers Act. Hall was a captain in the Navy Reserve, having just finished a tour conducting daily briefings for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on terrorism.
The brother of a Navy pilot, son of a Marine who stormed Guadalcanal, and grandson of a World War I sailor, Hall understood the dangers posed when an enemy acquired American weapons.
Sometimes, smugglers duped legitimate U.S. companies into selling restricted munitions. But as often, America companies were complicit. A month earlier, ITT Corp. had been fined $100 million for repeatedly selling classified night-vision-goggle data to the Chinese, putting profit over U.S. soldiers' lives.
The night-vision case had been built on subpoenas and other domestic powers. Catching foreigners operating overseas, especially in a police state like Iran, posed a greater challenge.
Operation Shakespeare was stretching into its third year, and though a deal with Alex Dave seemed close, Hall and Darius knew these cases fell apart all the time, often for no apparent reason.
In fact, a report that year in the Los Angeles Times disclosed that the CIA had created 11 Shakespeare-style overseas undercover storefronts at a cost of $100 million.
All but one had failed.
If Shakespeare succeeded, Hall believed, it would validate his controversial notion that such overseas stings were possible. It would prove that law enforcement agents could do more than wait for tips and react. They could take the offensive, be creative, operate aggressively beyond U.S. borders.
They could not ignore the geopolitics. It was 2007, six years after 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Four years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Two years after the election of the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. One year before the United States would elect a successor to its warrior president.
As Hall and the ICE agents stalked Alex Dave, talk of war between Iran and the United States grew intense. Reports surfaced that the Pentagon was redrafting Iran invasion plans. That summer, Bush linked Iraqi insurgent attacks against U.S. troops to Iran, ominously declaring, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities."
On the phone, Darius told prosecutor Hall that Alex Dave had agreed to buy microchips for a high-tech radar system, 1,000 units for $90,000.
But Alex Dave seemed to be playing games, alternately negotiating a lower price and claiming that his deposit to Darius' Delaware bank account had inexplicably failed to go through. Was this routine haggling? Or a trap?
The Americans needed to tread carefully. They didn't want to scare the Iranian away, but a real businessman couldn't agree to a ludicrously low deposit. They also worried that Alex Dave might be a con artist or, worse, an intelligence agent testing America's defenses.
When Hall got to the office, he read the latest e-mail exchanges. They followed a familiar theme.
Darius: "A real customer can pay this easy. ... Are you a businessman or are you driving taxi cab in Tehran?"
Alex Dave: "Why you don't want to believe me? I want to open new window for you in business . . . sonar, night vision, distance finder, radars, C-130 upgrade. ..."
Claiming the latest wire transfer had bounced back, Ardebili suggested: "We just can open a letter of credit."
Hall laughed when he read that and Darius' response:
"A letter of credit from an Iran bank is garbage. If your bank refuses to pay, what do we do? Ask the U.N. to help us? We are violating the law. What court is going to help?"
Hall skimmed the rest of the exchanges until he came to one that made him smile.
Darius: "Will this deal make you a hero with the Ministry of Defense?"
Alex Dave: "Not directly ... a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defense. ..."
Darius: "It is still good."
Yes, Hall thought as he closed the file. It is still good.
Contact staff writer John Shiffman
at 301-320-6655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.