Federal agents are investigating whether a helicopter they have held for 14 months at an airport in Texas was earmarked for shipment to Iran.
The agents suspect an Italian company has already shipped two helicopters in contravention of a U.S. trade embargo with Iran, and that the third was also intended for the country. The $8 million aircraft meanwhile sits in a Bell Helicopter hangar at Arlington Municipal Airport, The Dallas Morning News reported in Sunday's edition.
At least one of the aircraft believed shipped to Iran was equipped with night vision and autopilot technology subject to strict U.S. restrictions, the newspaper reported.
A federal seizure of an Iran-bound helicopter is "a unique circumstance" for North Texas agents, said George Richardson, special agent in charge of the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security office in Dallas. "This is driven by economics," he told The News.
The Italian company, Tiber Aviation SRL, last year bought three Bell 412 helicopters from Helivan SA of Mexico for about $22 million, the report said. Bell Helicopter says it leased three helicopters to Helivan in Tarrant County but that Helivan was not authorized to sell them.
Tiber asked Swiss-based shipping company Panalpina Inc. to transport the first two helicopters through North Texas to Italy, said Panalpina deputy general counsel Robert Ernest. Panalpina was about to ship the third when a Tiber pilot asked for a quote to ship the aircraft to Iran.
Panalpina refused to ship the aircraft and contacted the U.S. Commerce Department in Dallas, Ernest said.
Tiber has denied intending to ship any of the helicopters to Iran, according to court documents. The ownership of the helicopter is in dispute in a pending lawsuit between Tiber and Textron Financial Corp., a unit of Bell Helicopter Textron, Bell Helicopter's parent company.
The newspaper did not report any comment from Helivan.
The United States has imposed a trade embargo on Iran since 1995, but foreign companies linked to the United States can still use legal loopholes to sell U.S.-made goods legally to nations under U.S. export bans.
"We don't want technology to go to Iran, regardless of whether it will be used militarily or by civilian businesses," said Kenneth Wainstein, former U.S. assistant attorney general for national security.
"We don't want American businesses engaged in trade with a regime whose policies are antithetical to our national interests," he told The News.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News.