The nuclear puppet-master

A Tehran businessman’s clandestine worldwide web includes agents in Canada

Charlie Gillis and David Armstrong
Shahpari Sohaie/Redux

When Mahmoud Yadegari became the first man in Canada convicted of supplying nuclear equipment to Iran two weeks ago, his lawyer was quick to downplay his importance. The 36-year-old Iranian-born Canadian was nothing more than a “rube” caught up in Tehran’s global smuggling operation, said lead counsel Frank Addario, noting that, before his landmark conviction under UN special regulations and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Act, Yadegari was merely a truck driver in desperate need of a dollar. “I think if he could redo it,” said Addario, “he would have continued driving a truck.”

The depiction required a certain leap of imagination. In the six months leading up to his April 2009 arrest, Yadegari had contacted 118 companies across North America and sent more than 2,000 emails to suppliers in hopes of getting his hands on parts used in the enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel. Several firms warned him that his activities ran afoul of international law, while his “handler” in Tehran—a man named Nima Tabari— instructed him on how best to avoid attracting the attention of authorities. Yet the hapless Torontonian pressed on, and in March 2009 was caught trying to ship devices called pressure transducers to Iran via the United Arab Emirates. He now faces up to 10 years in prison.

Still, there was truth buried somewhere in Addario’s spin. As Yadegari prepared for sentencing last week, unanswered questions swirled around that “handler”—a mysterious figure who had steered Yadegari, marionette-like, through the forest of manufacturers, suppliers and middlemen capable of providing the parts Iran so desperately seeks. Based in Tehran and seemingly undaunted by the world’s disapproval of his activities, Nima Alizadeh Tabari is a living symbol of the Islamic republic’s indifference toward UN sanctions, and domestic criminal laws intended to stop it from getting the bomb. Investigators believe he had as many as a dozen agents working around the world at the time of Yadegari’s arrest, including more in Canada, while an investigation by Maclean’s reveals Tabari had close ties to companies known to have supplied nuclear parts to Iran. “It’s safe to say that the loss of Yadegari didn’t put a dent in Tabari’s business,” says Cpl. Pete Merrifield, the RCMP officer who led the investigation into Yadegari. “He had a lot more irons in the fire.”

Certainly all roads during the Yadegari probe led back to the 37-year-old businessman who, until recently, ran a trading company out of an office building in central Tehran. Tajhiz Sanat Ideal, or TSI Co., bills itself as a dealer in all manner of material, from wood and leather to—strikingly—equipment for the “nano and nuclear industries.” But if the Yadegari case is any guide, Tabari spends most of his time looking for so-called “dual-use” parts that can be put to work in nuclear centrifuges—machines used to enrich uranium into weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Starting in November 2008, he kept Yadegari on the run seeking an array of transmitters and valves that special regulations of the UN act forbid to be shipped to Iran. The handler seemed as consumed by the task as his agent: when police opened Yadegari’s email inbox in April 2009, they found some 28 messages from the Iranian, bearing instructions such as, “The below part [numbers] must be exactly confirmed . . . USD25,500 will be sent to you . . . please acknowledge the order.” Said one U.S. investigator familiar with the emails: “I don’t think there’s any doubt about who was directing whom.”

High on Tabari’s shopping list were pressure transducers, instruments that translate pressure measurements into electronic signals that can be displayed and recorded on a computer. Though widely available for use in everything from oil refineries to medical labs, the devices are on the UN’s list because they are a key component in centrifuges. Yadegari’s conviction stemmed from his purchase of 10 transducers from a company based in Markham, Ont., two of which he tried to send to Iran by way of Dubai.

What seems increasingly clear now is that the Yadegari case was no one-off. Through online inquiries, and interviews with authorities in both Canada and the U.S., Maclean’s has established not only that Tabari is still in business, but that he is linked to other suspected nuclear traffickers. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one law enforcement source said TSI is believed to be a front firm for the Kalaye Electric Company, an arm of the state-controlled Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which appears on a UN Security Council list of entities involved in Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities. According to the security council and numerous NGOs, the company has acted as procurer for fuel enrichment sites, including a formerly secret facility in Natanz that first came to light in 2002.

Tabari’s 50 per cent partner in TSI, meanwhile, is a 31-year-old named Sahab Noormofidi who has interests in at least two other companies that overlap with TSI. He is the commercial contact for Moshever Sanat Moaser, an engineering services outfit that shares an address and phone numbers with TSI. Moaser’s website describes the company as a provider of specialty alloys and industrial parts. But last year it turned up as the consignee on a shipment of 108 Swiss-made pressure transducers, which were ordered by a Chinese company and illegally sent to Iran through a Taiwanese intermediary. Sahab Noormofidi was also the contact for Karanir Sanat Co., a firm that trades in valves and alternately identifies itself as a “food manufacturer” and an “engineering company”; it, too, shares phone and fax numbers with TSI.
Both TSI and Moaser remain up and running—though calls to their Tehran numbers earlier this week drew a wary response. Tabari and Noormofidi no longer use the office and the companies have moved, said a man who fielded the call. He did not know the location of their new headquarters and refused to say who now occupies the old one. While email addresses for Tabari and Noormofidi remain active, messages sent to both received no response.

As above-board operators in their own country, Tabari and TSI are emblematic of Iran’s system for acquiring nuclear technology, according to investigators. The program runs much like government tendering in Western countries—the government offers money to anyone who can deliver the materials, issuing orders that independent importers like Tabari try to fill. In time, they become both independent contractors and middle managers in a high-risk, high-reward business—recruiting agents abroad, identifying suppliers, dispatching the operatives to buy and ship the needed goods. “This is a profit-driven crime,” says Timothy Gildea, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who worked with the RCMP on the Yadegari case. “It’s typically done by businessmen. They’re in it for the money.” (Same goes for low-level operatives like Yadegari, who charged Tabari a 270 per cent markup on the transducers he bought. Says Gildea: “You can make a good living at what he was doing.”)

Investigators have learned much in recent years about how these networks develop.

According to Clark Settles, chief of ICE’s counter-proliferation unit, operatives such as Tabari and Yadegari often become involved in the proliferation business through personal connections developed through relatives or time served in the military. “They may have spent time in logistics, or procurement, and seen how much money was made on these parts,” Settles said. “Their connections evolve, over time and through the Internet.” And ultimately, there’s little authorities outside Iran can do to control them. One federal investigator in Canada estimates there are “thousands, if not tens of thousands” of Tabaris at work, adding, “For us, there’s never a dull day.” In 2008 alone, officials with the Canada Border Services Agency made 25 seizures of parts they believe were bound for Iran.

That’s not to say Tabari is a small fish. His corporate connections suggest he’s a bigger player in the trade than most, and unlike many suppliers, he had access to a ready transshipper in the United Arab Emirates—a company called Keft Trading that acted as the consignee for the transducers Yadegari tried to ship. The UAE is a way station in many of Tehran’s nuclear trafficking schemes, because it only recently enacted trade restrictions against Iran. In recent weeks, experts have applauded the emirs for their new-found commitment to crack down. But when Maclean’s paid a visit last week to Keft’s offices in the Al Ghurair district of Dubai, the company was doing business as usual. Staff rebuffed requests for an interview with Kambiz Soodmand, the contact to whom Yadegari tried to ship his package, saying he was out of the country. Emails sent to Soodmand’s address were not returned.

All of it points to more work ahead for the Mounties, along with the border service and the U.S. agencies that helped bring down Yadegari. In ominous remarks made public two weeks ago, CSIS director Richard Fadden revealed that Toronto has become a haven for those trying to acquire technology to build weapons of mass destruction. “There are a lot of people who are very, very active in this area,” Fadden said in a speech to the Canadian Military Institute.

Few of these may have the competence to pull off a shipment, of course. Fewer still may have the courage. But as Yadegari’s unholy alliance with Nima Tabari demonstrates, it’s not so much the rubes one worries about, as the people who tell them what to do.