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The shadow war between the U.S. and Iran was briefly visible this week at an extradition hearing in a Paris courtroom, where an Iranian engineer was answering U.S. charges that he’d illegally shipped U.S. technology to Iran .

French authorities detained Majid Kakavand , 37, at the request of the U.S., as he stepped off a plane last year. On Wednesday he got a big boost when a French state prosecutor unexpectedly argued that the technology he allegedly shipped through his global procurement network had no military application.

Whether France extradites Kakavand or doesn’t, as now seems more likely, this was the latest round in an escalating contest over what U.S. officials say is Tehran’s voracious appetite for technology to feed its nuclear, missile and other military programs.

While diplomats dither about imposing new U.N. sanctions on Tehran because of its suspected nuclear weapons program, the real struggle over Iran’s capabilities is taking place in courtrooms and intelligence centers, via sting operations, front companies and falsified shipping documents.

In the last year alone, U.S. law enforcement and customs officials have uncovered at least 16 cases in which Iranians or their agents allegedly tried to buy night vision equipment, military aircraft parts, vacuum pumps with nuclear uses, and a lot more.

The U.S. counterattack has gone well beyond U.S. borders, provoking controversy and complications.
Suspects have been arrested and extradited from the country of Georgia and, just three weeks ago, from Hong Kong . A former Iranian ambassador to Jordan , nabbed in a U.S. sting operation, is fighting extradition from the
United Kingdom .

Iran is fighting back. In December, state media released a list of 11 Iranians it said were being improperly detained, either in the U.S. or in other countries at U.S. request.

Kakavand was on the list, as was Nasrollah Tajik, the former ambassador to Jordan . Also listed was Shahram Amiri , an Iranian nuclear scientist who disappeared in Saudi Arabia last year and was reported by ABC News to have defected to the U.S.

Manoucher Mottaki, the foreign minister, called Kakavand earlier this month to offer encouragement. The call fueled suspicions that if France releases him, Iran will free Clotilde Reiss , a young Frenchwoman who was detained after Iran’s disputed July 2009 elections.

U.S. officials say Iran has also responded by trying better to cover its tracks.

Read the rest of Warren P. Strobel’s article at McClatchy Newspapers.

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