Before the Iranian Revolution, which began in 1978, Iran was a steadfast U.S. ally. Consequently, the Iranian military arsenal was packed with American-made weapons. Iranian infantry carried M-16s; Iranian tankers drove M-60 Pattons; Iranian pilots flew F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats — a superb airframe, that was immortalized by the movie Top Gun.
Since the revolution, however, Iran has been barred from purchasing U.S. weapons and, more importantly, components and spare parts for, its aging military. Successive ways of economic sanctions, moreover, have constricted the country’s military budget, thus making it more difficult to purchase new arms from those willing to sell (Russia and China, most notably). The Iranians have confronted this restriction by either developing their own weapons or by scavenging the global arms black market for spare parts and smuggling them into their country.
But despite Iran’s threat to the West through its sponsorship of terrorism, there are individuals who are unsurprisingly willing to put profit before security: In 2018, Alexander George, a British pensioner, was jailed for shipping F-4 and MiG parts to Iran, thus violating the Weapons of Mass Destruction embargo. George used front companies, which he had established in Dubai and Malaysia, to smuggle into Iran essential components for the Iranian Air Force’s aging fleet. In return, he made almost $7 million.
The 77-year-old received a two-and-a-half-year sentence and was prohibited from managing a company for nine years. George had been working with a couple, Paul and Iris Attwater, who purchased used aircraft spare parts of dual-use — i.e., parts that could be used for both civilian and military aircraft — from the U.S. They used their company, Pairs Aviation Limited, to avoid any suspicions. The British couple, then, sent the components to George’s front companies, which then smuggled them into Iran. The Attwaters received a suspended six-month prison sentence for their involvement — they pleaded guilty, and that probably saved them from a severer sentence. For their involvement, they made an estimated $650,000 profit.
“These three sold banned items that ended up in Iran. They didn’t care what these parts might be used for, as long as they got paid,” Simon York, the leading investigator of HM Revenue and Customs said.
“This was a calculated and cynical attempt to undermine strict trade embargoes and internationally agreed controls. They knew the rules and weaved increasingly elaborate plans to stay under the radar,” added York.
George, however, denied the allegations and claimed that he instead shipped wheelbarrows, goggles, and gloves for the construction industry.
Iran hasn’t been the only nation to try and circumvent international embargoes. Israel faced a similar conundrum back in the 1960s-1970s: The French government had imposed an arms embargo. Nonetheless, the Israeli government and the Israel Aerospace Industries worked with Dassault, a French aerospace company, to produce an Israeli variant of the Mirage 5 fighter jet. The jet proved a great success, accounting for more than 100 kills in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.