A native of Iran accused of violating a U.S. trade embargo by selling sophisticated scientific equipment to Iran sat calmly in a Baltimore courtroom yesterday as federal agents unveiled a sting operation they say halted an international conspiracy.
Mohammed Reza Ehsan, 47, of San Ramon, Calif., is accused of attempting to ship two chromatography devices -- advanced machines that analyze chemicals -- to Iran in October. Virtually all trade with Iran was outlawed in 1995 by an executive order signed by President Clinton, citing the nation's suspected terrorist links.
"This is not a white-collar crime, even though it may have been done in a white-collar manner," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew G. W. Norman said in a pretrial hearing yesterday in U.S. District Court. "The operational well-being of Iranian power stations is of strategic significance to the U.S."
At least one of the chromatography machines had been destined for an Iranian power plant, a federal indictment said. Gas chromatographs are powerful tools for assessing oil quality in large electrical transformers.
Norman said Ehsan had purchased the machines for a total of $60,000 from a Columbia-based company, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc., and had hoped to transship the machines to Iran through Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
But when a Dubai trading company opened the shipping crates upon delivery, it found that the machines had been replaced with bricks by U.S. customs agents. The agents had been covertly monitoring Ehsan's telephone calls for weeks after an employee at Shimadzu tipped them off, the indictment said.
Norman told Judge William M. Nickerson that the Shimadzu chromatography machines are made to order. "They are only manufactured in Howard County," Norman said.
But Ehsan's attorney, Joshua R. Treem, contended that the machines in question are not state of the art, and accused the government of turning "two simple purchases for $60,000 into an alleged international conspiracy that covers half the globe."
Ehsan was arrested in November and is charged in a seven-count indictment with violating the trade embargo and making false statements to customs officials. If convicted, he could face 41 to 51 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Treem assailed the nebulousness of the trade embargo with Iran, telling Nickerson about instances in which the rules are routinely bent for subsidiaries of large U.S. companies in Europe that trade with Iran.
"If you go over there [to Iran], you'll find American cigarettes in stores, Boeing parts in planes and Pepsi coming out of the vending machines," Treem said.
Ehsan has made the same claims. In one wire-tapped phone conversation detailed in court papers, he told a business associate that there are many "made in America" labels in Iran, from airplane parts to American Standard toilets.
In another taped conversation, Ehsan purportedly said he intended to ship the items to Dubai, and whatever happened to the shipment from there "is not my business."
Treem said Ehsan's plan to ship the chromatography devices to Dubai did not constitute anything illegal and he accused the government of entrapment.
Norman, the prosecutor, said Ehsan's strong ties to Iran were obvious and that Dubai, because of its proximity to Iran, is an obvious place for transshipping schemes.
"Look at a map. Dubai is to Iran what Ocean City is to Baltimore," Norman said.
Ehsan came to the United States in 1983 after fleeing his native country. He had been arrested and held as a political prisoner there after the 1979 revolution, and stripped of most of his property, court papers said.
He has rebuilt his life in the United States, running a medical software company and trading company, and owning interests in farmland in Indiana and several rental properties, court papers said.
Over the years, Ehsan has re-established good relations with Iran, court papers said. He still has relatives there and last year spent five weeks in the country.
Pub Date: 6/20/97