When word of the Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir hit the news, many reacted with skepticism. For some western observers, the fact that an Islamic regime cooperated with Mexican drug traffickers, and the seemingly clumsy nature of the whole operation, cast doubt on the validity of the Obama administration’s claims. Amid the intense debate on Iranian intent and given past US intelligence failures and Iranian denials, this conclusion may appear inevitable. But is it?
Iran is located on one of the most important opium transit corridors, between producers in Afghanistan and consumers in Europe and beyond. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that nearly 60% of Afghanistan’s opium is trafficked across Iran’s border, and a large portion is seized by the Iranian government.
Soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s blessing, the “Office of Freedom Movements” was created. Under the direction of Ayatollah Montazeri’s son Muhammad and son in-law Mehdi Hashemi, the office’s primary objective was to strengthen allied groups abroad.
From the beginning, this office, whose members worked closely with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, became involved in illegal smuggling to finance operations. In a famous episode in 1980, Muhammad Montazeri was detained in Teheran’s Airport and his chartered plane was seized by the then-moderate government of Mehdi Bazargan. The authorities never revealed the plane’s contents, other than to state that it was full of smuggled goods which were headed for Libya.
Montazeri’s life ended in a bombing operation orchestrated by the anti government Mujahedeen Khalgh (MKO) and Hashemi was executed by the regime after he blew the whistle on Robert McFarlane’s trip to Iran, which in turn led to the exposure of Iran-Contra debacle.
However, other members of The Office of Freedom Movements survived and moved to the Intelligence Ministry, playing a key role in developing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations units, which gradually metamorphosed into the Al Quds unit. Al-Quds’ main mission was to facilitate Islamic movements abroad, particularly the Palestinian and Shiite groups in Lebanon.
Smuggling and drug trafficking remained the preferred means of financing operations for the Al Quds unit, and for good reasons: it ensured a constant flow of money from a seemingly endless supply of drugs from Afghanistan; it provided a measure of independence from the Iranian government and its inevitable bureaucracy; and most importantly it provided a convenient means of deniability for the regime, which could always point an accusing finger at rogue elements or drug traffickers.
Al-Quds’ close involvement with drug trafficking was rumored from the beginning, but the first Iranian journalist who talked about it publicly was Ahmad Zeidabadi, a journalist for Ettela'at. Zeibadi wrote an article implicating the deputy director of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, Saeed Imami, in the use of money from drug trafficking to finance operations abroad. Imami was later arrested and supposedly committed suicide while in custody.
It is an established fact that Al-Quds forces created Lebanese Hezbollah and that Hezbollah has been running a very sophisticated drug operation in South America, particularly in the tri-border region. Hezbollah’s activities in South America were reported in the media and the United States Congress. The argument that contacts with drug traffickers are totally out of character with the Islamic regime simply doesn’t hold water.
The other argument — that this operation appears to be too clumsy and uncharacteristic of the Islamic regime’s operations — also fails further scrutiny. Although it is true that the Islamic regime in Iran has successfully carried out over a hundred targeted assassinations of its opponents abroad, the operational track record of its operatives is far from efficient.
From the Khobar Towers Bombing in Saudi Arabia and AMIA bombing in Argentina, to the assassinations of dissidents such as Dr. Shahpour Bakhtiar, the late Shah’s last prime minister, ample evidence was left behind pointing directly to Iran. According to the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, the evidence against Iran was so incontrovertible that the Islamic regime’s President Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted to King Abdullah, then the Saudi Crown Prince, that the Khobar attacks had been planned and carried out with the knowledge of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The investigation into the 1994 AMIA bombing of a community centre in Argentina led directly to Imad Fayez Mughniyah, the high-ranking member of Lebanese Hezbollah, and five high-ranking officials of the Islamic regime, one of whom was Ahmad Vahidi, the current Defense Minister who at the time of the bombing headed the Al-Quds unit.
Iran’s reach and calamitous influence is far broader than the relatively narrow prism of the IAEA’s recent report on Iran’s race for the bomb. Since actions speak louder than words, even a cursory review of events can serve as a reminder of why the world needs to do more to limit the current Iranian regime’s capabilities. The alliance of Iran, affiliated terrorist groups, drug traffickers and religious fanatics is already established and operational, even without nuclear capabilities. The recent assassination plot is another grave reminder that this alliance must be stopped.
Nir BOMS and Shayan ARYA* – Analysts of Strategic Outlook
Nir Boms is a co-founder of CyberDissidensts.org. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran (Liberal Democrat).