Deadly

The Chinese Company Selling Iranian Sniper Gear Around the World

‘The proliferation of this technology is illustrative of a supply chain that is truly global and, consequently, is difficult to monitor and control.’

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It’s a thermal sniper sight that allows a shooter to see his prey’s body heat against the black of night—and boy, is Iran’s military proud of it. The pricey RU60G sniper sight has gotten the royal treatment in state-linked news outlets, propaganda documentaries, and selfies with senior officers, where it’s trumpeted as a great indigenous optical achievement.

Though Tehran would have you believe its sniper sight is a purely domestic affair, the fact is they had a little help from abroad. Sift through the layers of business registration documents, web hosting records, and photographs from Middle Eastern weapons black markets and you’ll find the trail for Iran’s thermal sniper sight runs from the war in Syria all the way to a cheap motel room in Beijing, where the chairman of one of Iran’s largest defense contractors registered a shell company to invest in Chinese optics manufacturing.

The world got one of its first glimpses of the RU60G sight—and its larger cousins, the RU90G/RU120G—in 2013, during Iran’s International Police Safety & Security Equipment Exhibition in Tehran. Amidst the displays of SWAT-style tactical gear, Iranian news outlets celebrated a new thermal sniper sight, the RU60G, and displayed a larger version of the sight from the same family atop an AM50 sniper rifle. The sight, a fawning Iranian news article proclaimed, would help soldiers target militants in the harsh terrain of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan provinces and in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan—two areas where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have fought to suppress Islamist and Kurdish nationalist insurgencies.

It’s indeed a valuable piece of equipment. The thermal sniper sights let users see targets during day, night, and under most weather conditions. They allow a shooter to see through most kinds of smokescreens, spot camouflaged targets, and even tell if a vehicle is running or idle. In short, they greatly amplify a user’s ability to spot targets on the battlefield.

Two years after their exhibition debut,  the sights began to surface, not in Iranian provinces, but on social media weapons black markets run by militants in Iraq and Syria and Yemen—three countries where Iran has been supporting and supplying militant groups. Turkey has already arrested Kurdish militants using the RU60G, in a possible sign that Iran’s arms production is starting to fuel other, unrelated conflicts.  

Militants in both Iraq and Syria have carried out a brisk trade in weapons, explosives, and military equipment through Telegram channels, WhatsApp groups, and Facebook pages where optics equipment is especially popular. The markets act as a kind of lint trap for the weapons supplied to different factions in the conflicts. Whether captured from dead fighters, sold through corruption or simply lost through neglect—the chain of custody is rarely clear—arms like the RU60G began to fetch anywhere up to $5,000.

Soon, al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria were showing off captured RU60G sights attached to Iranian AM50 sniper rifles while Iranian-backed militia members in Iraq published pictures of themselves packing RU60G-equipped rifles. Night vision and thermal sights have been popular with Islamist militant groups in Syria, where militants have occasionally posted propaganda videos filmed through lenses. The videos show snipers far away from their targets waiting for lone sentries to expose their heads or torsos—revealed in white blobs on thermal sights—to fire and fell enemy troops.

All this time, Iran has told the world that the RU60G is an indigenous product only made by Rayan Roshd Afzar, an Iranian defense company that, according to U.S. sanctions designations, supports the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ drone and aerospace programs. The firm also produces software to help censor social media in Iran.

Chinese business registration documents, however, tell a different story. In 2013, the chairman of Rayan Roshd, Mohsen Parsajam, registered a business, Most Outstanding Beijing Technology Developing Company Globally Ltd, to room 1724 on the 14th floor of a Beijing hotel. Registration documents reveal no activity for the company until 2015—the year when RU-series sights began appearing abroad. That April, Parsajam’s company took an ownership stake in Sanhe Haobang Optoelectronic Equipment Co., Ltd, a Chinese company run by Chinese national Emily Liu.

Sanhe registered websites for Raybeam Optronics and a host of other companies. On Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce website, Raybeam began marketing military optical equipment from its factory, including a series of sights identical to the RU60G and the RU90G/120G—ever so mildly relabeled as the “RB60G” and “RB90/120G”—and promised it could crank out as many as 600 a month for customers.

Alibaba shut down Raybeam’s store in July 2017 shortly after Emily Liu and her network of companies were sanctioned, according to a statement provided to The Daily Beast by Alibaba Group.

Liu and Raybeam did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

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Exhibitor lists and Raybeam’s own website show that in 2016 and 2017, the company traveled around the world to offer its products to international customers at arms exhibitions in Moscow, Beijing, Kazakhstan as well as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Almost two years after Raybeam exhibited in Dubai, Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen could be seen in photographs carrying weapons equipped with the RU60G sniper sight as they fought a brutal counterinsurgency waged by a coalition including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Snipers in Yemen have made use of anti-materiel rifles designed to pierce armor and knock out enemy equipment in addition to copies of the Russian-made SVD sniper rifle. A March report by the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights found that, while airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties over the past six months, “indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire in densely populated areas by the Houthis accounting for much of the remainder.”

In June 2017, Liu’s relationship with Iran caught up with her. The Treasury Department sanctioned Liu, Raybeam, and a handful of other companies connected to her. The designation described Liu as a “China-based procurement agent” who “sought to procure U.S.-, Canadian-, and European-origin electronic components on behalf of [Iran’s Shiraz Electronics Industries].”

Liu’s designation didn’t mention thermal sights or Rayan Roshd but in the same announcement, the Treasury Department said it was sanctioning both Rayan Roshd and Parsjam. Parsajam, the release noted, had “obtained a range of military-applicable items from China on behalf of Rayan Roshd.”

It’s unclear how much of the RU60G’s production took place in China at Raybeam’s facilities, but products traceable by Liu’s network of companies have surfaced abroad. The Daily Beast found a host of advertisements in Syrian rebel arms markets on Telegram advertising both the RU60G and its components. "Salaam alaikum, brothers. That's the telescope,” one poster wrote beside a picture of the thermal sight. “In your experience, how does it compare to the 3S or the Pulsar?”

A review of the markings on the RU60G’s lithium ion batteries found in Syrian social media arms markets show nearly all marked with Rayan Roshd branding. One battery, though, was marked as the product of Raytronics Co Ltd. When it sanctioned Emily Liu’s network of companies, the Treasury Department listed “Raytronic Corporation Limited” as an entity controlled by Liu used “to support her proliferation activities.” The markings also describe the battery as for the “RU60 series”—eschewing Raybeam’s slightly altered “RB60G” branding and instead using Rayan Roshd’s own designation for the sight.

It isn’t clear whether Raybeam is still in business with Iran. But the company is still very much in business in general. Corporate records show that Raybeam is still offering products for sale, including the infrared lenses used in the RU-family of sights. Complete sights, redubbed as hunting products, can still be purchased from vendors in China and Sanhe Haobang has continued to file patent applications for new technologies. This October, Raybeam is also scheduled to exhibit at the 2018 Interpolitex Means of State Security Exhibition in Moscow, according to an exhibitor’s list.

Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at Small Arms Survey, a nonprofit which studies the spread of small arms in conflicts, said that he’s not familiar with the RU60G specifically but recognizes the pattern it represents. “The proliferation of this technology is illustrative of a supply chain that is truly global and, consequently, is difficult to monitor and control. This is not new. It is a problem that the international community has been wrestling with for many years.”  

Updated 5/14 at 4:45pm to add statement provided to The Daily Beast by Alibaba Group.