COLUMBIA — A North Charleston businessman pleaded guilty Tuesday to illegally exporting goods to Iran.
Markos Baghdasarian entered the plea in Charleston a day after opening statements in his federal trial. Prosecutors have said the businessman lied to federal agents about trying to get South Carolina products into Iran.
It’s against the law to trade with Iran without special permission from the government. Federal law also requires exporters to file forms saying where their shipments are going.
Baghdasarian was president of Delfin Group USA, a Russian-owned producer and supplier of synthetic motor oils that solidified its U.S. presence in the North Charleston area in 2008 with a $55 million renovation to an old Shell Oil plant it had bought for $20 million.
He was arrested in May at Atlanta’s main airport before he could board a flight to the United Arab Emirates. That’s where, according to federal authorities, Baghdasarian had an associate who helped get his South Carolina-made products into Iran.
Some of the evidence agents said they had amassed against Baghdasarian came from emails to him from two unidentified business associates who discussed how to safely get Baghdasarian’s products to Iran without detection.
Prosecutors said one of those businessmen was Baghdasarian’s agent in Iran and also represented a company in the United Arab Emirates used to ship Delfin products to Iran. A second businessman operated another business in the UAE for similar purposes, John Hardin, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, said in court papers.
In July 2010, one of the businessmen had conversations with another person on how to help Baghdasarian get around U.S. sanctions on Iran by using his UAE-based company. In those communications, according to Hardin, the unidentified businessman said the materials would come into Iran via Dubai but would be relabeled as “UAE product.”
Other communications discussed what product labels should look like, with one message including a fake address for a California company and a false toll-free number.
In August 2011, Delfin USA tried to send aviation-engine-lubricating oils worth $850,000 to an associate in the UAE, according to Hardin. Federal officials failed in their efforts to contact Baghdasarian’s company to get information about that shipment. Agents attached electronic trackers to another load of 11 containers bound for the UAE; one was traced all the way to Iran.
Before his arrest, Baghdasarian acknowledged to federal agents that one of the businessmen was a middle man for his company’s products but, according to agents, lied in saying that he didn’t know that the other associate was in Iran until just a few months earlier – after the U.S. Department of Commerce suspended his company’s trading privileges.
Former South Carolina U.S. Attorney Bart Daniel has been defending Baghdasarian. In an email to The Associated Press, Daniel said he felt his client made the right decision to plead guilty.
Baghdasarian could have faced up to 20 years in prison, but Daniel said federal officials had agreed to a maximum sentence of five years.
Federal prosecutors confirmed the guilty plea but declined to immediately comment on the case.