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Parts sent to Iran could be used for nuclear weapons development

Three men, including an Iranian-born chemical engineer living in Glendale, have been charged in an alleged scheme to smuggle sophisticated industrial components into Iran that could be used in the development of a nuclear weapon, authorities said Wednesday.

The case, which comes as the U.S. is rallying allies to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has drawn interest at the highest levels of government, an official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Times.

Authorities allege the men were attempting to smuggle high-grade vacuum pumps and other items into Iran in violation of federal trade laws regulating the export of some technology to unfriendly nations and U.S. sanctions against Iran. Investigators’ suspicions were heightened by the great care the defendants took to hide their alleged activities.

“These were educated men,” said Louis Rodi, a top supervisor in the Los Angeles customs office. “These individuals knew what they were doing.”

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According to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Jirair Avanessian, 56, of Glendale was paid several hundred thousand dollars to ship “high-dollar vacuum pumps and pump-related” equipment to Iran.

The parts, which were mislabeled and significantly devalued on shipping manifests, were initially sent to the United Arab Emirates, federal authorities said. A co-defendant would then forward the items to a third defendant in Tehran, according to court papers.

Rodi stressed that investigators do not know what the vacuums, valves and other components were ultimately going to be used for, but said he had been briefed by scientists on their potential uses, which include “development of nuclear capabilities.”

Avanessian was indicted Dec. 30, along with Farhad Masoumian, 42, of Tehran following a joint investigation by the customs agency, the FBI and the IRS. The pair are charged with smuggling and money laundering. A third man, Amirhossein Sairafi, also of Iran, was charged separately in a criminal complaint filed last week. He was arrested this week in Frankfurt, Germany, according to authorities. None of the defendants could be immediately reached for comment.

Authorities said Masoumian, based in Iran, would place orders with Avanessian, who owns an import-export company called XVAC on Winchester Avenue in Glendale. Avanessian would ship the material to the United Arab Emirates, where Sairafi would send them on to Iran, the indictment alleges.

The defendants would “relabel the contents of the shipments in order to mask the true contents and to avoid interception by U.S. customs officials,” according to the indictment. In most cases, Avanessian described the material on airway bills as “spare parts” and falsely declared that their value was under $2,500, the threshold for filing requirements that would have drawn greater scrutiny from customs officials.

Throughout the alleged conspiracy, which authorities said began in June 2005 and lasted until April 2009, Masoumian transferred several hundred thousand dollars into Avanessian’s U.S. bank accounts, authorities allege.

The investigation was launched in February when customs officials inspected four wooden crates bound for Dubai via LAX, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by an FBI agent working the case. The shipment, sent by XVAC, was described as containing “spare parts” and had a declared value of $2,318. But it weighed more than 1,300 pounds.

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Based on the generic description and apparent discrepancy between the weight and declared monetary value, authorities opened the crates, court documents state. Inside they discovered vacuum pumps and related equipment valued at nearly $190,000. The shipment was immediately seized by authorities.

Investigators began looking into Avanessian’s past shipments and found 16 between 2006 and 2008 that, on paper, were “strikingly similar” to the seized shipment. In a search of Avanessian’s house, agents found a laptop computer hidden underneath a dresser in his bedroom. The computer contained an e-mail to Sairafi regarding one of the shipments, court papers state.

Virginia Kice, a customs agency spokeswoman, said the investigation is ongoing and involves multiple federal agencies in addition to the FBI and IRS.

“It’s a very significant case for a variety of reasons,” Kice said. “These guys weren’t exporting sewing machines, after all.”

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scott.glover@latimes.com


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