WASHINGTON, March 28 (Reuters) - A dramatic expansion in nuclear and military smuggling investigations should lead to a flood of new criminal cases, primarily against Iranian and Chinese middlemen, U.S. law enforcement officials said on Wednesday.
U.S. officials said they are investigating 30 percent more cases this year than three years ago. U.S. agencies have deployed agents posing as arms brokers at more than 20 undercover companies targeting smugglers, said the officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Undercover arms smuggling investigations typically take two to four years to unfold, one of the officials said, which is why he expects an increase in indictments soon.
"We've got some good undercover cases going," a senior U.S. official said.
The new cases also offer insight into one metric for measuring Iran's possible interest in nuclear weapons: They show that Tehran continues to try to acquire "dual-use" items, products that can be used for both military purposes, such as nuclear weapons, or peaceful ones, the officials said.
"We're seeing the same trends," a senior U.S. law enforcement official who closely monitors Iranian smuggling investigations told Reuters. "The pace is the same - the same networks, sometimes in different ways."
"We continue to see a steady drumbeat of cases," said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman.
Some of the dual-use technology, such as vacuum pumps, pressure transducers and carbon fiber material, are of particular use for uranium enrichment. Other materials investigators believe Iran has been making clandestine efforts to obtain include specialty metals and alloys used in missiles.
"Iran may have nine out of the ten parts it needs for a weapon, and that tenth part may seem innocuous," said an American official in Dubai, a favored smuggling venue. "It's the tenth item you have to worry about, and unfortunately we don't always know which of the nine dual-use items they already have, so you have to guard against them all."
A Reuters analysis - calculated using indictments the Justice Department identifies as "major export cases" over the last eight years - shows that nearly one-third of them involved alleged smuggling to Iran.
Of 260 major U.S. export cases since 2003, 83 involved Iran, the most of any nation. Sixty-one of the 83 Iranian cases can be categorized as military-related smuggling: they involve radar and night-vision gear, fighter jets, airplane components and missile technology. Eight of 83 cases included alleged attempts to acquire equipment with nuclear applications.
"It's important to shine a light on this because it is further proof of the Iranians' effort to get nuclear capability and the way they will violate any law to do so," said Robert Casey, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on the region.
U.S. and European intelligence agencies, including the FBI, are seeing the same trends with regard to Iran, officials said, but some European agencies are more focused on gathering information than making arrests.
A security official for an allied government said European governments were tracking "hundreds" of cases in which middlemen suspected of acting on behalf of Iran were trying to buy technology which could be used for nuclear purposes.
The pattern of these attempted acquisitions, the official said, led some European intelligence officials to conclude that Iran was actively pursuing at least some elements of a nuclear weapons development program.
Tehran says its nuclear program is aimed at developing energy for peaceful purposes.
The increase in law enforcement activity has been led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, which has doubled the number of counter-proliferation squads in recent years, officials said.
ICE recently opened a new, 18-agency Export Enforcement Coordination Center, designed to reduce redundancies and increase statistical analysis, shortcomings officials acknowledge have hampered previous efforts.
Arms smuggling cases are primarily conducted undercover and agencies often find themselves bumping into each other. In one recent case, an official said, the new export center discovered that one group of undercover agents was trying to buy arms from another group of U.S. agents.
U.S. officials say they do not keep sophisticated statistics on export smuggling prosecutions - a point highlighted in a Government Accountability Office report to Congress released on Tuesday.
"While there is a good exchange of intelligence ... no formal process or means existed for these groups to collectively quantify and identify statistical trends and patterns relating to information on illicit transshipments," the report said.
In court cases in 2010, the United States won convictions against three Iranian-born men: two were convicted for smuggling vacuum pumps and the third for trying to acquire and smuggle American-made pressure transducers.
Underscoring the difficulty of such prosecutions, the United States lost one of its most significant cases in 2010, when France refused to extradite Majid Kakavand, whom the Americans accused of supplying companies involved in Iran's nuclear effort. (Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao)