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updated 2/23/2005 7:38:49 PM ET 2005-02-24T00:38:49

As President Bush pressures European allies to get tougher with Iran, NBC News got a rare glimpse inside the country — at an Iranian air show attended by some of the world's leading military contractors eager to do business with America's adversary.

On the island of Kish, mullahs mixed with Ukrainian generals amid photos of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran's contempt for the United States was clear — emblazoned underneath a helicopter, in Farsi: "Death to America."

It's generally illegal for American companies to do business with Iran. But NBC News found more than a dozen European defense and aviation firms eager to fill the void. Some do business with the Pentagon, yet they were actively selling their wares to Iran.

"We sell to Iran [sic] Air Force," said Francois Leloup from Aerazur, a French company that markets fighter pilot vests, anti-gravity suits and other protective gear for military pilots.

"We sell mainly to security people like police," said Arnaud Chevalier with Auxiliaire Technique, which was representing a group of companies at its exhibition booth. Some of the brochures on dispay showed tank helmets, communication systems for light armored vehicles and an "infantry headset." Chevalier said such equipment was "not for sale."

NBC News showed our video from the air show to arms expert John Pike, director of the nonprofit organization GlobalSecurity.org.

"I think that the Europeans would sell their grandmothers to the Iranians if they thought they could make a buck," says Pike.

Also exhibiting at the show — European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and its subsidiary Eurocopter — which has launched a campaign in the United States to get a bigger share of Pentagon contracts, featuring ads that wrap the company in the American flag.

But if the company is so pro-American, why is it ignoring U.S. policy to isolate Iran?

"As a European company, we're not supposed to take into account embargoes from the U.S.," says Michel Tripier, with EADS.

"The emphasis here is on our civil helicopters. We are not offering military helicopters here," he adds.

Yet, prominent on the company's video in Iran — a military helicopter.  

"It says 'Navy' in their own promotional videotape," says John Pike. "I guess they're hoping Iran's navy is going to want to buy it."

EADS says the helicopter just happened to be on the video, and that it abides by U.S. and European rules against selling military goods to Iran.

Another company, Finmeccanica, recently won a contract to build a new version of the presidential helicopter, Marine One, as part of a group led by U.S. contractor Lockheed Martin.

It was also in Kish showing off its helicopters to Iran.  

"This company is building the American president's new helicopter, and they're trying to trade with the enemy!" exclaims Pike.

Steven Bryen used to be the Pentagon official responsible for preventing technology from going to countries like Iran. Now he's the president of Finmeccanica in the United States. Does he think Iran is an enemy of the United States?

"I think they're our enemy at this point," says Bryen. "I mean, they're behaving like our enemy."

So why would Bryen's company trade with an enemy?

"In Europe, they don't call it the enemy," he says. "If it's a civilian item that doesn't threaten anyone, then I don't have a problem with that."

European subsidiaries of NBC's parent company, General Electric, have sold energy and power equipment to Iran, but GE recently announced it will make no new sales. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Still, even with the president now pushing hard to isolate Tehran, European allies are likely to continue their role as what one company called, "a reliable partner for Iran."

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