Christopher Tappin, 66, of Orpington, Kent, had denied conspiring to sell batteries for Iranian missiles but, as expected, changed his plea on one count of aiding and abetting the illegal export of defence articles at a hearing in El Paso, Texas, yesterday in an agreement with US prosecutors.
It had been thought he faced up to 35 years in jail if found guilty, but his plea calls for a 33-month sentence which prosecutors have said they will not oppose him serving in the UK.
His wife Elaine, 62, said yesterday that “however upsetting” the plea deal was, it marked the beginning of his “swift and safe return” to the UK. US District Judge David Briones will sentence Tappin on January 9.
Tappin’s US lawyer Dan Cogdell said he expected him to serve several months in a US prison while authorities in Washington and the UK decide whether to extradite him.
The former president of the Kent Golf Union has previously denied attempting to sell batteries for surface-to-air missiles which were to be shipped from the US to Tehran via the Netherlands, claiming he was the victim of an FBI sting.
The case followed an investigation which started in 2005 when US agents asked technology providers about buyers who might have raised red flags. Those customers were then approached by undercover companies set up by government agencies.
A spokesman for the US attorney’s office in the western district of Texas said Tappin admitted that between December 2005 and January 2007, he knowingly aided and abetted others in an illegal attempt to export zinc/silver oxide reserve batteries, a special component of the Hawk Air Defence Missile, to Iran.
According to the plea agreement, which is pending approval by Judge Briones, Tappin faces a fine of $11,357.14 (£7,044) along with the prison sentence.
By pleading guilty, he waives his right to appeal his conviction or challenge the sentence handed down in this case, the spokesman said.
Two other men have already been sentenced in connection with the case.
Briton Robert Gibson, an associate of Tappin who agreed to co-operate, was jailed for 24 months after pleading guilty to conspiracy to export defence articles.
Gibson provided customs agents with about 16,000 computer files and emails indicating he and Tappin had long-standing commercial ties with Iranian customers.
American Robert Caldwell was also found guilty of aiding and abetting the illegal transport of defence articles and served 20 months in prison.
Plea bargaining is common in the US, with defendants often able to secure a more lenient sentence if they admit an offence and co-operate with prosecutors, rather than contest the charges in a trial.
Tappin’s UK lawyer, Karen Todner, who also represented computer hacker Gary McKinnon in his successful 10-year fight against extradition, said 98 per cent of people who enter the US justice system agree a plea deal.
Cogdell, however, said he didn’t see much room for argument and pleaded guilty “because he was guilty”.
“He regrets his conduct, he regrets the time away from his family, he regrets the notoriety,” the attorney added.
Tappin was extradited in February after losing a two-year legal fight.
He then spent 23 hours a day locked in a cell at the Otero County detention centre in New Mexico before being set free after his family paid $50,000 (£31,026) of a $1m (£620,527) bond, and moved to a flat in Houston, Texas.
Mrs Tappin, said: “My overwhelming feeling remains one of anxiety and sadness.
“However at last I dare hope that Chris will be back on home soil next year.
“I feel we are getting to the beginning of the end.
“It has been a very difficult time for us all and one that would have been infinitely harder had we not received such warm support from friends and strangers alike. For that I shall always remain extremely grateful.”