Iran Steps Up Bell Smuggling

 - June 27, 2011, 4:45 AM

Iran is continuing its global, coordinated and illegal campaign to smuggle Bell helicopters and spares to keep its fleet flying in contravention of international arms embargoes. Several high-profile international arrests in late May, one in London and the remainder in Spain, point to a fresh round of smuggling activity.

Two Belgians, Willy de Greef and Roland Depelchin, and their front companies, Meca Airways and Meca Overseas Airways, were indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury in March on charges of attempted export to an embargoed country (Iran), wire fraud, money laundering, smuggling, conspiracy and making false statements. De Greef was arrested in London in May and is awaiting extradition. Cohort Depelchin remains at large. The duo are accused of lying to parts suppliers about the destination of such items switches, fuel cells and turbine bypass valves.

Less than two weeks after de Greef was arrested, Spain’s National Police arrested five Spanish businessmen and three Iranians in Madrid and Barcelona on charges of attempting to deliver at least nine Bell 212s from Spain to Iran. Several other sources said the deal included up to five Bell 206s and numerous spare parts, including engines. Spanish authorities valued the deal at €100 million ($144 million).

These latest arrests appear to be in response to a continued campaign that Iran has been waging since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, to keep its fleet of Bells flying through a combination of reverse engineering and smuggling. Iran began marketing the Shahed 276, an indigenously produced Bell 206 knockoff, in 2002. Bell sued Iran for trademark and patent violations for this activity in 2006. In 2009 U.S. federal agents arrested Hossein Ali Khoshnevisrad, along with three principals of an Irish trading company, the Mac Aviation Group, and charged them with attempting to smuggle 17 Rolls-Royce 250 turboshaft engines, the same kind that power the Bell 206, into Iran via Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. That same year another 11 defendants were charged in Florida with attempting to export parts for Bell AH-1 Cobra gunships and UH-1 Hueys to Iran via Dubai.