The spy who came in from the cold

11 March 2012 - 02:06 By Sunday Times

BARRY Oberholzer's story of how he turned from sanctions-busting to spying for the Americans is a movie script in the making.

"The world I've been dropped into is a world very few people get to see. But the life of a spy is nothing like in the movies. This is not a glamorous life," he told the Sunday Times.

The well-built 29-year-old was born in the US, where his father, Barry Oberholzer snr, was the South African consul in Houston, Texas.

He came to SA when his dad's term ended in 1985, first studying and then working as a marketing manager for Base4 Aviation, before joining the Oberholzers' company, 360 Aviation.

In 2005, he took the fateful step of placing an advert to sell a Bell helicopter on, the online aviation version of Gumtree. He was soon contacted by Iranian businessman Hussein Safari, keen to buy the US-made helicopter. A visit to Iran soon followed.

Safari, whom they later appointed as their agent in Tehran, introduced them to a network of Iranians who opened their eyes to the sanctions-busting opportunities of supplying that country with choppers at a premium via South Africa.

A typical profit on a Bell was over R3-million, according to Oberholzer. Business really took off in 2008, when former president Thabo Mbeki began strongly promoting South African business relations with Iran.

Over the next three years, 360 Aviation refined its sanctions-busting model. Besides shipping aircraft and parts to Iran through its own front company, Gemini Moon, it helped set up local fronts for another sanctions-busting outfit and a major Iranian oil company.

But, as international sanctions against Iran intensified last year, he realised that, as a US citizen, he risked a 15-year jail term if caught. He decided to pass information about his sanctions-busting activities - including his attempt to get Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's support for the helicopter deal - to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The US government would not confirm or deny that Oberholzer had worked as a covert informant for the FBI . "As a matter of policy, the US government does not comment on specific law-enforcement or security matters," said US embassy spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau.

Nonetheless, the Sunday Times has seen evidence that he collaborated with US intelligence agencies.

Oberholzer, who this year enrolled for an undergraduate course at the American Military University on Counter-Intelligence and Terrorism, says he decided to come clean as he could no longer take the strain.

"The work of a covert operative is very dangerous, and it's incredibly stressful," he says. "I've done my job. Now I can come out."