The US Justice Department has charged two men - one Chinese and the other Iranian - with conspiring to violate the embargo against Iran by trying to smuggle restricted equipment and materials suitable for gas centrifuges for enriching uranium into that country. The items to be smuggled had been made in the US.
The investigation focused on a global smuggling network that is said to have sought to obtain sensitive materials from companies in California, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio and to conceal that the goods would be shipped on to Iran.
A 24-page indictment, revealed on Friday but handed down by a grand jury in May, accuses Parviz Khaki of Iran and Zongcheng Yi of China of working together and with others to buy the materials, including 20 tonnes of high-strength steel, 40 tonnes of aluminum alloy rods, radioactive materials, mass spectrometers, measuring instruments and vacuum system equipment.
''Today's indictment sheds light on the reach of Iran's illegal procurement networks and the importance of keeping US nuclear-related materials from being exploited by Iran,'' Lisa Monaco, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement. ''Iranian procurement networks continue to target US and Western companies for technology acquisition by using fraud, front companies and middlemen in nations around the globe.'' Mr Yi remains at large, the Justice Department said, but Mr Khaki was arrested in the Philippines in late May based on an earlier indictment, at the request of the US authorities, who are apparently seeking his extradition.
The court filing also accuses Mr Khaki of working for an unnamed customer in Iran to obtain the desired goods. He is accused of asking Mr Yi and others to contact US companies about buying the goods, evading US export-control rules and concealing the ultimate customer.
The indictment quotes email messages between Mr Khaki and Mr Yi as well as from an undercover federal agent posing as an American willing to evade export-control laws. While it does not say whether most of the materials Mr Khaki and Mr Yi are said to have discussed were shipped to Iran, it suggests investigators obtained evidence that the network did succeed in shipping lathes and nickel alloy wire to Mr Khaki in Iran.
While cases accusing people of conspiracies to violate the embargo on Iran are not rare, the US government views this one as significant because it involved nuclear-related equipment, rather than more conventional materials like replacement parts for Iran's fleet of F-14 Tomcat jets from the 1970s, a law enforcement official said.
Meanwhile, US investigators are probing a major Chinese telecom company and its US subsidiary for allegedly selling surveillance equipment to Iran, according to a newly disclosed document.
According to an excerpt from an FBI affidavit published on the website Smoking Gun, FBI and Commerce Department investigators are zeroing in on apparent efforts by China's ZTE to ship to Iran hardware and software components bought from leading US technology firms. The affidavit says ZTE attempted to obstruct the investigations.
The Commerce Department has been looking into ZTE since at least March, when it served an administrative subpoena on Dallas-based ZTE USA for information on monitoring equipment allegedly exported to Iran, according to the affidavit.
Justice and Commerce officials declined to comment.