TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Israeli arms dealers Eli Cohen and Avichai Weinstein have been arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle F-4 fighter components to Iran amid a shakeup in the Defense Ministry over concerns supervision of arms exports is too lax, Israeli media reported.
Security authorities in Greece intercepted the F-4 parts in December 2012 and April 2013. The parts were being shipped in containers from the Israeli town of Binyamina-Givat Ada, north of the port city of Haifa, the Greek daily Kathimerini reported last week.
They had been sent through a Greek company, Tassos Karras SA, registered in Athens, which investigators found to be a front company for a British national who cannot be traced, the newspaper said.
Greek officials said U.S. Homeland Security and the Drugs and Weapons Unit of Greece's Financial Crimes Squad investigated the shipments, which violate a 1979 U.S. arms embargo in Iran.
Israeli police declined comment on the case but Israel's Globes business daily reported Thursday Cohen and Weinstein, his brother-in-law, had been arrested in the Jewish state and were being interrogated by police and Defense Ministry officials.
The Islamic Republic is heavily engaged in arms smuggling from the West. It's desperate to find spare parts for its aging fleet on F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat jets bought from the United States by the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Globes reported Cohen and Weinstein, who live in the Binyamina-Givat Ada area, have a long history of questionable dealings in the arms business. Globes said this is the sixth time in 12 years Cohen has been investigated for alleged arms trafficking with Iran.
In 1992, Cohen was arrested in the United States on similar charges, but prosecutors could only prove tax evasion. He served a six-month sentence.
Five years later, Israeli police accused Cohen of selling military equipment to Iran, but he ended up with a three-month suspended sentence.
In 2004, Weinstein and Cohen were linked to Leib Kohn, a 70-year-old New York businessman, who pleaded guilty in a Connecticut court to buying F-4 radar parts and components for the Hawk anti-aircraft missile on behalf of partners in Israel and shipping the items, ultimately intended for Iran, to Israel without the appropriate licenses.
Cohen and Weinstein were questioned by Israeli police, but were not indicted.
The arms trade is a major element in Israel's economy, accounting for $7 billion in sales in 2012. Israel is among the top five arms exporters, but the leader in terms of percentage of the overall economy.
Israeli arms dealers, who must be licensed by the Defense Ministry, have been involved in many illegal schemes over the years.
In the most notorious, known as Irangate, the Israeli government colluded with the U.S. administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1985-86 to supply Iran with more than 1,000 LAW anti-tank missiles and Hawk components worth more than $100 million in a bid to secure the release of U.S. hostages held by Shiite militants in Lebanon.
The weapons sales were brokered by Israeli arms dealer Yaacov Nimrodi, counterterrorism adviser of then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The U.S. administration funneled proceeds from the illegal sales to secretly fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Israel's state comptroller alleged in 2013 there are major deficiencies in the supervision of arms-exporting companies, suggesting there had been abuses.
In December, the director of the Defense Export Controls Agency, Meir Shalit, resigned after Washington complained an Israeli company had received a marketing license to China, violating firm agreements with the United States.
Retired army Col. Dubi Lavi, who had served for a decade as head of the ministry's Drones Administration, was named as his successor. He will oversee 7,784 licensed arms dealers, about 1,000 companies and 312 independent security businesses, ministry figures indicate.
"How the ongoing attempts by the Israeli courts and the state comptroller to bridle the arms export industry develops will be interesting to follow, as it pits the civilian rule of law against the most powerful components in the Israeli state, the country's military," former CIA official Philip Giraldi wrote in a column in the American Conservative.