Author John Shiffman’s new book, Operation Shakespeare, explores and details the scary world of international arms trafficking, a venture far easier than it should be.
Shiffman, who works for Reuters, will appear at the Fort Worth Club’s Speaker Series on Tuesday. We chatted with him recently about his book.
You have covered the arms market for a while, but in your research for your book, did you come across anything that surprised you?
The thing that surprised me is the volume in black-market trading in military technology. The government talks about it, but when you dig — and just this one guy [an Iranian, who is a central figure in the book] was prolific yet representative at the same time — it was astonishing. I got access to his laptop. At one point I typed in “missile” just to see what came out of it. I think there were over 1,400 hits. He made thousands of queries to American companies. Most of them were in the tens of thousands of dollars. It was the scope and volume that the Iranians were trying to get.
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Are there penalties that would actually stop these American companies from selling to the black market?
The financial penalties are there. What would do it is longer prison terms for people that do this.
The Iranian arms dealer in the book spoke of not wanting to deal arms that could kill people. Is that how decent people justify these transactions?
When they think of war and weapons, they think of guns and bullets. They don’t think today’s technology to deliver the bullets and to protect people matters. They don’t think about it in terms they ought to. It all matters. If a pilot can be blinded by a countermeasure, like light, he will be killed. If a soldier [is] on the battlefield, and the other side has thermal vision … see Hamas coming out of the tunnels right now in Gaza. It all matters.
The key Iranian dealer in your book sounds like an otherwise decent man, that in his mind he was not breaking any laws.
He told me, if you go to another country and you drink alcohol, you violated the law from another country — you can’t drink in Iran. It’s not a very good analogy, but that is the point he made. He always argued that legally he was in the right. He was a smart man. He was not breaking any Iranian laws.
What is the future of arms dealing?
It’s hard to predict. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan … they tend to be the ones. The one that goes on and off the radar are Libya and Syria. You can see how it’s cyclical. We were mortal enemies with Russia, then we were friends, and now it’s complicated. Agents have done cases where they are investigating someone and geopolitics change, and what do you do? The rules and sanctions change, and it’s no longer a crime and no longer an embargo.