How Iran Obtains U.S. Technology

60 Minutes: Despite Total U.S. Trade Embargo, Country Manages to Obtain U.S. Technology

The Islamic Republic of Iran announced this week that it has already starting enriching uranium at its nuclear facility at Natanz, giving the Obama administration ammunition in its drive to pressure Russia and China into imposing tough new sanctions against Iran.

But, as we found out, it's no easy task enforcing the sanctions that already exist in this country. Iran is getting hi-tech materials and components for a variety of weapons from right here in the USA, and we have a total embargo: blanket sanctions against any trade with Iran.

Our law enforcement agencies have become more aggressive in hunting down and catching the smugglers engaged in this illicit trade. Yet it is an ongoing cat and mouse game.

One reason it's been so hard to shut this down is that Iran often turns to under-the-radar middlemen who run small trading companies around the world. Some are based in American cities.

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"Are you a procurement agent for Iran?" 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Mohammad Vaghari, an Iranian who has lived in the U.S. for 15 years and is facing up to 85 years in prison.

"No, that's ridiculous, no," he replied.

"But of course that's sort of the implication of the case against you," Stahl pointed out.

"I'm nothing to do with the Iranian government or things like that at all," Vaghari said.

Vaghari and his lawyers are preparing for his trial next month on charges that he conspired to send U.S. technology to Iran through a trading company he set up in his basement apartment in Philadelphia.

"You are charged with trying to buy a centrifuge that could be used to make biological weapons like anthrax," Stahl remarked.

"I don't know about that. I'm not a biological expert to tell you…," Vaghari said.

"That's in the affidavit, and it's part of the charges against you," Stahl said.

"Yes, that's what they say," Vaghari replied.

He says his client for the centrifuge was a science lab at a university in Dubai, but he says he never bought it, he only asked for its price.

"It was too expensive," Vaghari said. "You know, we couldn't afford such a thing."

"This is apparently why the FBI came to you…over this centrifuge because the salesperson who you spoke to got suspicious. Says he asked you all kinds of questions. He asked you for a shipping address that you wouldn't give him," Stahl remarked.

"I told them we are a middleman. I just want to know how much is this?" Vaghari replied.

But this middleman fit a pattern: a U.S.-based Iranian with a small export company trying to send technology to Dubai, which is a popular port for sending goods on to Iran.

The FBI then learned that Vaghari was asked to buy a hydrophone that could be used to listen to submarines, and laptops.

Vaghari did end up sending three items to Dubai, but says they were "very common college lab equipment."

Asked if the items ended up going to Iran, he told Stahl, "Never, no."

"You're sure of that?" Stahl asked.

"As far as I know, yes," Vaghari replied.

"Is it your argument that you were duped, that there were people in Iran and they fooled you into thinking the stuff was going to Dubai, when it was really going to Iran?" Stahl asked.

"No. The stuff was intended for Dubai, and ended up in Dubai and stayed in Dubai. That's what I think," Vaghari said.

But in a search of his apartment, the FBI found e-mails asking him to make inquiries for the Pasteur Institute and Tarbiat Modares University, both are based in Tehran and, according to intelligence out of Europe, both are trying to buy lab equipment in the west that could be used to produce biological weapons.

Vaghari will argue in court that the equipment was for Iranian professors who work in Dubai.

Asked if he thinks the whole premise of the U.S. case against him is faulty, Vaghari said, "Doesn't make sense."