SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An Elk Grove man charged in Sacramento’s federal court with selling tank helmets to Iran’s military pled guilty on Monday, with his co-defendant backing out of a similarly structured plea deal as the hearing was underway.
Dariush Niknia pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to export to an embargoed country, which can land him in prison for a maximum sentence of 20 years.
His co-defendant, Richard Lant of Las Vegas, was “unable to assure the court” that he wanted to change his plea, and Judge Kimberly J. Mueller declined to proceed with the entry of a guilty plea, according to a filing by prosecutors. A status conference hearing was set for October.
According to Niknia’s plea agreement, he and Lant worked together in 2015 to export 500 T-72 tank helmets to an Iranian buyer who intended to use them for Army Logistics and the Military Industries of Iran.
The United States government, in 1997, found that the actions and policies enacted by the Government of Iran, including the support of violent jihadist groups and nuclear weapon stockpiling, “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” and declared a national emergency, imposing economic sanctions – including a trade embargo – on Iran.
Former President Donald Trump imposed additional sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as senior military leaders and the country’s president, for human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, bombings, and the repression of civilians. Ebrahim Raisi, President Biden’s counterpart in Iran, said on Monday that he has no plans to meet with Biden at the UN General Assembly, further cementing the divide between the two countries.
Lant sold Russian nesting dolls and Ushanka hats through his business, R&L Ltd, and Niknia had a history of shipping helmets to Iran with him, first doing so in 2011 with around 300 helmets. When the Iranian contact reached out to him again for helmets, Niknia went to a seller on eBay instead of Lant.
Niknia spoke on the phone with the man about buying several-hundred helmets for shipment to Tehran, but the seller backed out after he realized what Niknia was asking was illegal. The seller didn’t sell any helmets to Niknia and reported him to the FBI, prompting the investigation.
Niknia then went to Lant, who helped order 500 helmets with a 5-pin plug, to be produced “right away” and shipped directly to Tehran or – only if needed – Russia or Turkey. The men, after identifying a shipper, agreed to ship the order in groups of 100 at $78 per helmet in order to “keep the IRS out of it.”
They first tried to send a sample helmet to the contact in Iran but couldn’t do it from their Russian shipper because the country had also adopted US sanctions against Iran. Niknia tried finding another way.
“Could he [try] to give some tip[s] or find [a] connection in the post office [to] make it [happen?]” he asked Lant.
“No one wants to go to prison!” Lant answered.
The men later found an associate in Moscow who helped them ship the sample helmet, but the buyer in Tehran wasn’t happy with it because it had a round plug instead of the rectangular 5-pin plug as requested. Niknia made a second payment to Lant for the 5-pin helmet, and had it sent off to Tehran, which was approved with a request that additional helmets be sent 50 at a time.
Niknia then sent a $3,500 check to Lant for 50 helmets. Niknia sent the check from his business, Euro Auto Sales, scrawling “helmets for motors” on the memo line, which was deposited into Lant’s bank account. Days later, a family member of Lant informed Niknia that the deal had once again hit a roadblock.
Lant’s kinsman forwarded Niknia an email from the associate in Moscow, who said selling many helmets is prohibited in Russia and instead proposed making shipments 5 at a time.
“No thanks they don’t want 5,” Niknia responded, receiving a refund on the $3,500 check.
In November of 2017, the FBI interviewed Niknia about their ongoing investigation into the helmets. Niknia confirmed his email address to investigators but denied ever shipping anything to Iran, until he was confronted with his emails to the eBay seller and Lant. Niknia told them that the Iranian buyer was his cousin, who had professional connections to the Iranian government.
“Finally, when confronted with evidence that NIKNIA contacted LANT and had a helmet sent to Iran, NIKNIA acknowledged that he paid LANT via PayPal to send the helmet and knew at the time that it was prohibited by the sanctions against Iran,” a portion of the plea agreement reads.