N. Charleston man gets 3 years for exports to Iran

Markos Baghdasarian heads to Federal Court in Charleston Wednesday morning where he was sentenced for illegally exporting goods to Iran.

Brad Nettles

In search of the American dream, Iranian native Markos Baghdasarian left Armenia years ago and immigrated to the United States.

With a doctorate in education, he began washing dishes in the U.S. and eventually worked his way up the corporate ladder of an Atlanta automotive body-filler manufacturing company. He went on to head up the Delfin Group USA, a lubricant blending and packaging facility in North Charleston.

Along the way, amid his successes, friends and family said that Baghdasarian selflessly helped others, displaying exemplary character, philanthropy and a strong work ethic before making, admittedly, the biggest mistake of his life in 2010.

It was difficult for many who know him to believe that the 49-year-old Georgia man violated the long-standing U.S. trade embargo with Iran and shipped $2 million worth of his company’s oil lubricants to the sanctioned Middle Eastern country.

Baghdasarian did so, federal prosecutors said, as part of an elaborate scheme to outsmart the U.S. government, tap an untapped market in Iran and make some money from a country that was off-limits to many of his competitors.

He pleaded guilty to the charges two days into his December trial, and on Wednesday a judge sentenced him to serve three years in prison for his crime.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel called Baghdasarian’s violations a very serious offense.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart told the judge during the sentencing hearing that the shipments were not a “one-time deal.” Had a whistle-blower not turned him in to authorities, Baghdasarian would still likely be exporting his goods to Iran, he said.

“It’s clear that he had every intention in the world to sell them in the future,” DeHart said.

DeHart also pointed out that they don’t think that Baghdasarian’s motives were political. “We’re not suggesting for a second that he was trying to help the government,” he said.

But the shipments clearly violated an embargo that’s meant to maintain peace, prosecutors said. Gergel agreed.

“Clearly, this was important to the Iranians,” Gergel said, based on information he read in emails between the co-conspirators and Baghdasarian.

The embargo against Iran was put into place in 1995 by President Bill Clinton to curb Iran from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons and includes trade and investment sanctions.

Baghdasarian first shipped the items to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where the goods were repackaged, placed in new containers and shipped to Iran, prosecutors said during the December trial.

Baghdasarian lied on shipping documents and routed payments through Dubai, prosecutors said.

During Wednesday’s hearing, three rows of friends and family packed the downtown Charleston courtroom. Seven addressed the court, including Pat Formica, the former president of Bondo, where Baghdasarian began his career.

“It seems so atypical of his history,” he told the judge. “It’s uncharacteristic.”

Gergel asked Baghdasarian why he would risk so much. He answered: “I think too much work, too much responsibility,” and pressure upon him, he said.

Gergel said the 36-month prison sentence balances his character traits against the severity of the crime. The judge also wanted to deter other business men and women from doing the same.

Baghdasarian could have faced nearly five years behind bars if Gergel had chosen to hand down the maximum punishment.

“This is a hard case,” DeHart said in court. “It’s a lot easier to prosecute a bad person versus a good person.”

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.