LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — An Iranian national and an American citizen who worked as an airline pilot pleaded guilty Monday in a plot to ship helicopters and aircraft parts for Iran's state-run civilian airline, in violation of the U.S. trade embargo.
Their scheme, hatched in 2007 and continued until 2011, was foiled before the defendants arranged any deliveries, federal authorities said. The men had hoped to make millions by selling the parts to Iran Air, which is owned by the country's government, authorities said. Several of Iran Air's planes are made by U.S.-based Boeing, according to the airline's website.
None of the parts or aircraft was intended for the military, prosecutors said.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iran Air for providing material support and services to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to federal prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney David J. Hale said in a news release that circumventing the embargo is a serious matter and commended the FBI for its work disrupting the scheme.
The defendants were identified as Hamid Asefi, a 68-year-old Iranian citizen, and 53-year-old Behzad "Tony" Karimian, a U.S. citizen living in Louisville who holds a valid Iranian passport and has worked as a pilot for the now-defunct Mesaba Airlines, which had been based in Minneapolis.
They were charged with violating and conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act for exporting, selling, or causing the export or sale of aircraft and aircraft parts in violation of U.S. trade sanctions against Iran. That law allows the president to impose economic sanctions against another country.
The men, arrested earlier this year, entered guilty pleas before U.S. Magistrate Judge James D. Moyer. Each faces up to 40 years in prison and fines of $500,000 following their pleas to a two-count indictment unsealed before their hearing in Louisville.
The scheme was meant "to illegally enrich the conspirators" by supplying aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran, the indictment said. They were negotiating to obtain a GE aircraft engine for nearly $2 million and had located a helicopter being offered for about $2.4 million, it said.
Erwin Roberts, a Louisville attorney representing Karimian, said "they never really got very close to completing any transactions, at least as far as my client is concerned."
Karimian was born in Iran but came to the U.S. at age 16 and has been a longtime U.S. citizen and Louisville resident, his attorney said. He said his client doesn't harbor any allegiance to Iran.
"He wasn't trying to support Iran," Roberts said. "He was trying to make money, that was his interest in it."
An attorney for Asefi did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Asefi is the principal officer of Aster Corp. Ltd., an Iranian company with offices in Iran and the United Kingdom, authorities said.
The indictment accused Asefi of using his United Kingdom office for about four years to try to orchestrate shipment of the aviation goods from the U.S. to Iran, through third-party countries, they said.
The defendants communicated with each other through email, federal authorities said.
Asefi sent requests on behalf of Iranian entities to Karimian for the purchase of aircraft and aircraft parts located in the U.S. or owned by American citizens, according to the indictment. Karimian made inquiries, placed orders and tried to facilitate those purchases, it said.
Asefi discussed efforts to obtain parts for Boeing 747 aircraft and aircraft engines, the indictment said. They also tried to buy helicopters made by U.S.-based Bell.
In September 2007, Asefi sent an email to Karimian regarding Karimian's interest in establishing a "profitable business collaboration" by supplying aircraft and aircraft components for buyers in Iran, the indictment said.
Later, in an Oct. 1, 2009, email in which Asefi outlined terms of delivery and payment on transactions, he told Karimian: "Also, remember that, only US embargo has brought this chance and benefit to us, to get involved in these deals," according to the indictment.
Sentencing for both defendants is scheduled for March 4.