Spain's CNI intelligence services worked with the CIA for two years as part of an operation that resulted in the arrest of two Spanish businessmen last month for allegedly trying to sell helicopters to Iran in contravention of a UN arms embargo. The men had been under surveillance since 2009, according to US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
Jaime Bedia García and Pedro Torres Gallego were arrested on May 25 along with four Iranians at an industrial complex in Navas del Rey, on the outskirts of Madrid. On the same day, Spanish police detained two other Spaniards in Barcelona, confiscating a total of nine Bell 212 helicopters.
The WikiLeaks cables show that three of the helicopters were put up for auction by the Israeli Defense Ministry in 2005 and were bought by Bedia García and Torres Gallego. They were subsequently visited by the CNI and US officials who wanted to know what the pair intended to do with them.
The CNI was told rumors the craft were to be sold to Iran were "laughable"
"It is a legal transaction that is made quite frequently," said one police source. Spanish companies buy helicopters from other countries and, after they are refurbished, resell them to regional governments for use in transport or fire-fighting. The police statement said that the dealers tried to hide the export sale by listing it as "legal aviation repairs."
After Spain tightened up its aviation regulations, Bedia and Torres were unable to get a navigability license for the two helicopters. They then applied to the US State Department for permission to ship them to Sweden.
Later, in November 2005 an Iranian businessman, Alireza Valadkhani, signed an agreement with the Spanish pair to buy a part-share in the helicopters.
In February, 2006 the helicopters were shipped to Sweden. But the authorities there refused to grant a navigability license. The helicopters remained there for three years while the Spaniards sought permission to return them to Spain.
Finally, US and Israeli authorities relented and in May, 2009 the helicopters weer returned to Spain, where US officials inspected them.
The WikiLeaks US State Department cables show that American authorities suspected Bedia and Torres would try to sell the helicopters to Iran. A cable dated October, 22 and signed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calls on the US embassy in Madrid to monitor the helicopters.
US officials visited the warehouse in Navas del Rey and met with Torres and one of Bedia's sons. The officials were told that the businessmen simply wanted to make the best of what they described as "a bad, very bad, piece of business."
The Spaniards told the same story to CNI agents and said that rumors the helicopters were to be sold to Iran had surfaced in Sweden, and described them as "utterly laughable."
Valadkhani contacted Bedia and Torres in late 2009, saying he wanted his money back. He subsequently contacted two Barcelona-based companies, Linneo and Grup Les Fonts, with a view to selling the helicopters.
In May of last year, through a Dubai-based company he owns, Valadkhani proposed buying the helicopters. Bedia and Torres said that this would not be possible and that the sale would have to be made to a company based in Spain, with the authorization of the US. The Iranian accepted, and said he would travel to Spain to arrange the sale.
Valadkhani arrived in Madrid on May 25 and went to the warehouse where the helicopters were stored. He was accompanied by an Iranian lawyer with offices in Barcelona who owns a small aviation business. He also brought an engineer with him. While the five were discussing the sale, police moved in and arrested them.
Meanwhile, in Barcelona, José Creus and Pedro Maturana, the owners of the company that was supposedly to buy the Bell 212s, were also arrested. They had six helicopters in their warehouses.
Police estimated the total value of the helicopters, spares and other military materiel at about 100 million euros ($140 million). With a top speed of 230km/h (140mph) and an average range of 600 kilometers (370 miles), the helicopters were designed to ferry troops and military equipment, police said.
They also seized aviation spare parts allegedly destined for export to Venezuela. Neither Iran nor Venezuela made any immediate comments about arrests. In 2006, the United States stopped Spain from selling Venezuela 12 EADS-CASA military planes that use US technology. In its refusal to allow Spain to transfer the license, US government officials argued that "even though the government of Hugo Chávez has been democratically elected, it has suffocated democratic institutions."
Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba called the undercover operation an "important" one, saying that it took months of investigating many angles. "Spain is at every front when it comes to fighting crime," he said.
"There are Iranians all over the world trying to buy anything from helicopters to microchips and other products that can be used militarily," says a senior Spanish police official.
Iran's imports have been under scrutiny for the last two years by international organizations. UN Security Council Resolution 1929, approved in 2010, imposed tougher sanctions on Iran that include all arms sales, along with banking and transportation activities.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the US Congress during his trip to Washington in May that the international community must impose yet further sanctions on Iran. But as leading Israeli daily Haaretz has recently pointed out, at least 200 companies with strong ties to Iran operate in Israel. Some are even involved in the oil industry, Iran's main source of foreign revenue, which funds its nuclear program. The US State Department, in conjunction with the Spanish authorities, keeps a watchful eye on exports to Iran, particularly material that can be used for military purposes.
"In Spain we are constantly detecting the presence of Iranians. They say they are political refugees, but this isn't true," says the Spanish police official.