Mark Hosenball & Michael Isikoff
An aggressive Bush administration campaign to block arms sales to Iran has been dealt a series of setbacks by the refusal of some foreign governments to turn over alleged arms dealers arrested in undercover U.S. law enforcement stings.
In Thailand last month, authorities released from custody a high-ranking Iranian Air Force officer who had been caught in a sting mounted by U.S. Homeland Security and Defense Department investigators, who alleged that he was trying to buy missile-guidance devices. The release of the Iranian, Jamshid Ghassemi, was ordered by Thai courts, after the Iranian government argued to Thailand's government, that Ghassemi was the victim of American entrapment and that he would be tortured for confidential information about the Iranian military, if extradited to the United States.
In Britain, U.S. authorities have been having trouble finalizing the extradition to America of Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian ambassador to Jordan who was ensnared in a separate Homeland Security operation. During the course of this inquiry, Tajik allegedly sought to illegally export American-made night-vision devices to Iran.
In yet a third case, as NEWSWEEK first reported China last spring released an accused Iranian smuggler after he had been caught in another Homeland Security sting allegedly trying to buy American fighter-jet parts for shipment to Iran. The accused smuggler, Yousef Boushvash, had been at first detained by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong following the bust. But when the United States sought his extradition, Beijing officials ordered authorities to let him go, and Boushvash vanished, according to a U.S. official familiar with the case, who asked for anonymity due to diplomatic sensitivities.
These cases have frustrated Bush administration officials, who view the accused arms suppliers as part of a vast overseas network that is providing dangerous weapons to the Tehran regime. Though the arrests of the arms dealers do not involve alleged exports of nuclear technology to Iran, they are part of an extensive campaign by the White House to curb Iran's ability to obtain equipment which could be useful either for related military programs—such as its effort to develop longer-range missiles; or to its efforts to maintain and modernize its military forces, which have been decaying since the imposition of sanctions by the United States following the fall of the Shah in 1979.
Tehran is clearly playing hardball with Washington and foreign governments over these cases, U.S. officials believe. Details of arguments the Iranian government made to Thai authorities, in pressing for the recent release of the accused missile-parts smuggler Ghassemi, are contained in an affidavit obtained by NEWSWEEK which was submitted to the Thai courts earlier this year by the Iranian's defense lawyer, Kittipong Kiettanapoom.
According to the document, the United States went after Ghassemi because he was a "high-ranking military official" of Iran and, in the course of his normal duties, had been following the orders of his superiors to buy 12 accelerometers (which Washington says can be used for missile guidance) for the Iranian Air Force. "The fact is that the defendant had exercised his duty at the order of his superiors," the affidavit says. "The defendant made his purchase consistent with military conduct."
According to the defense lawyer, the sting against Ghassemi began after "a spy ... under the service of the United States Department of Homeland Security ... traveled to Iran" to sell military spare parts to the defendant. "The spy in cooperation with the United States government entrapped the defendant," the lawyer contended, adding that, "Because the defendant is a high-ranking military officer, the United States wants the defendant so they can torture and coerce him into getting information to develop their own weapons." The lawyer argued that Thailand's court should "not extradite this defendant to the United States because it is Iran's rival," adding that "if the court extradites this defendant to the United States, the defendant will be tortured for the purpose of revealing Iranian confidential military information."
An American official familiar with the failed U.S. extradition cases said that Tehran made similar arguments about injustice and entrapment when it successfully pressured Beijing to get Hong Kong authorities earlier this year to release Boushvash. State Department officials expressed dismay at how the Thais handled the Ghassemi case, and at the intervention of Beijing that led to the release of Boushvash. A State Department official told NEWSWEEK that the United States believed that "the law and the facts support the extradition of Jamshid Ghassemi, an Iranian citizen, who we believe is an arms trafficker, from Thailand to the United States" and that Washington was "disappointed" with a Thai court decision on Sept. 18 rejecting the extradition request.
After the U.S. extradition request was turned down, Ghassemi was allowed to proceed to an airport and depart from Thailand before U.S. investigators on the scene had a chance to examine a computer that the Iranian had been toting, said a U.S. law enforcement official. American officials believed that the computer might have contained information valuable to U.S. intelligence agencies.
A State Department official said that the U.S. government likewise was disappointed at how Boushvash had been let go on the orders of Beijing. Hong Kong's government informed the United States last April that "in accordance with instructions from the central government of the People's Republic of China, it had decided to withdraw the authority to proceed to extradite Yousef Boushvash to the United States," the official said. Boushvash had been "charged with committing serious crimes under U.S. law", including smuggling and money laundering, the official said, and Washington believes his release was "incongruent" with the otherwise close law-enforcement relationship between Washington and Hong Kong. "We have raised our concerns over this case with Hong Kong and central [Chinese] government officials," the State Department official added.
Efforts by the U.S. government to secure the extradition of Tajik, the former Iranian ambassador arrested in the United Kingdom, appear to be more complicated. The case has been bogged down in legal and administrative appeals; according to Iranian news reports, Tehran's representatives have complained about Tajik's treatment both to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government and to leaders of Britain's main opposition party, the Conservatives. Last week, a spokeswoman for Britain's Home Office, responsible for domestic security, told NEWSWEEK that Tajik's "representatives" had been granted more time to "make representations" to the department's chief, the Home Secretary, regarding Tajik's "health."