WASHINGTON — The shadowy world of illicit trade with Iran could come into sharper focus with a North Charleston, S.C., businessman’s guilty plea to charges surrounding illegal exports to the Middle Eastern country.
Businessman Markos Baghdasarian’s guilty plea could send him to federal prison for up to five years, according to his attorney. If he starts talking, Baghdasarian also could help investigators find out even more about how U.S. goods are finding their way into a country whose economy has been crippled by sanctions.
“He accepts responsibility,” Baghdasarian’s attorney, Bart Daniel, said in a telephone interview Thursday, adding that now “he’s got the opportunity to assist the government.”
Daniel, a former federal prosecutor, said it’s not yet known whether Baghdasarian will begin cooperating with Justice Department officials beyond tendering his guilty plea. A defendant’s cooperation can be taken into account for sentencing, which in Baghdasarian’s case could take place around March.
Baghdasarian pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, as well as violating the same law, and making false statements. Manager of a Russian-owned and North Charleston, S.C.,-based company called Delfin Group USA, Baghdasarian admitted to exporting aviation engine oils and polymer to Iranian customers. As part of the scheme, he filed documents falsely claiming that the products were bound for customers in the United Arab Emirates.
With his plea, coming on the second day of trial, the 49-year-old Baghdasarian becomes the latest wheeler-dealer to be caught doing illegal business with Iran.
In September, Iranian national Saeed Talebi pleaded guilty in New York to helping ship industrial supplies through Dubai to Iranian petrochemical companies. In July, Andro Telemi of Sun Valley, Calif., pleaded guilty to trying to ship TOW missile parts to Iran via Dubai. That same month in Tampa, Fla., Mohammad Reza Hajian pleaded guilty to conspiring to export computers to Iran.
Other sanctions-evading schemes prosecuted by the Justice Department over the past two years have covered products including specialized metals, aircraft components, centrifuges and fighter jet engines, according to a department summary.
Underscoring the high visibility of the latest Iranian case, the plea agreement was jointly announced by U.S. Attorney for South Carolina William N. Nettles, along with the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for national security and two top customs officials. A Washington, D.C.,-based attorney from the Justice Department’s National Security Division, Elizabeth Cannon, served as co-counsel.
“The significance of this case is that we wanted to make a statement about deterrence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Alston Badger said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Iran, Daniel said, is “still a pariah country.”
The United States has imposed a succession of economic sanctions on Iran since militants seized 52 U.S. hostages in 1979 and held them for 444 days. Once intended to steer Iran away from support for international terrorism, the sanctions now are being used to pressure the country away from a potential nuclear weapons program.
“The accumulation of…sanctions is beginning to take a dramatic toll on Iran’s economy,” the non-partisan Congressional Research Service noted in October, while adding that “sanctions against Iran have not, to date, clearly reduced Iran’s influence in the Middle East or its strategic capabilities in the Persian Gulf region.”
Prosecutors say that Baghdasarian, who is a U.S. citizen, as early as June 2010 undertook the scheme that included registering “paper” companies in the United Arab Emirates. He also produced fictitious labels for Delfin Group USA products in order to obscure the company’s identity from export enforcement officials.
Investigators subsequently learned that the fictitious Delfin labels included a spurious Santa Cruz, Calif., address and a toll-free number “associated with the intimate apparel company Victoria’s Secret,” according to the indictment. The indictment further noted that neither Baghdasarian nor two co-defendants, who remain at large and are presumed to be overseas, ever obtained the license needed to ship the products, worth an estimated $850,000.