The Islamic Republic of Iran has long been considered the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. But the regime is also, in a more common sense, a criminal enterprise of the mafia variety. Indeed, smuggling is its lifeblood.
Tehran has long been reliant on smuggling, both to offset Western sanctions and to line the pockets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members who command Iran’s shadow economy. Some estimates have indicated that the regime’s underground economy might account for as much as 36 percent of the country’s GDP.
The IRGC’s Quds Force is responsible for training US-designated terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others. But it also dominates the country’s key economic sectors, including construction, information technology, port and mine development, railways, and, perhaps most importantly, energy.
The Quds Forces runs an extensive smuggling network that the ruling theocrats have dubbed a “resistance economy,” for its role in evading sanctions. But while the IRGC is aware of its importance, many major US news outlets have shown little interest.
A recent Washington Post report was a noteworthy exception.
The January 3 dispatch by Katie McQue, entitled “Smuggled Iranian fuel and secret nightmare transfers,” shed a light on the shady business. McQue, a freelance journalist based in Dubai, did a deep dive into a subject, and a world, that is often overlooked.
McQue spoke to smugglers, many of whom spoke anonymously “for fear of reprisals.” All were Indian nationals who worked for companies that helped smuggle Iranian oil to Somalia. Their description of the process is worth noting, as they offer a “rare inside look at how these activities are carried out,” the journalist observed.
The transfers, the smugglers told McQue, happen at night. The ships switch off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) to prevent tracking. The origins of the shipments are forged, with many made to look as if they’re originating in Iraq or the United Arab Emirates.
The exact amount being smuggled is unknown, but it’s estimated to be millions of barrels a year.
To secure this lucrative trade, the IRGC relies on obfuscation, bribes, and threats. Samir Madani, the co-founder of Tanker.Trackers.com, told McQue: “The classic way to obfuscate is to switch off your [AIS] transponder, then you go dark for a week, then you come back online, and everyone is wondering where you picked your cargo up from.”
The IRGC has been known to show extreme brutality when boarding ships and seizing diesel. Many ships carry large amounts of cash, in the hope that by paying a ransom, they can ward off torture. As one seafarer told McQue: “The only way to get the Iranians to leave the ship is for the captain to give them cash … because they [the IRGC] never behave like humans. They start beating, always.”
In addition to interviews, the Post’s story is replete with maps and pictures. Unfortunately, it is an all-too-rare look at the IRGC’s role in Iran’s economy.
Indeed, when the US Treasury Department recently sanctioned some of those responsible for the illicit trade, most major US news outlets didn’t seem to notice.
In August 2021, the US Treasury announced that it had sanctioned Mahmood Rashid Amir Al Habsi, “who worked with senior Revolutionary Guard officials and facilitated shipments of Iranian oil,” a Bloomberg report noted. Several businesses associated with Habsi were also sanctioned. Treasury noted that the funds procured helped bankroll the IRGC’s terrorism.
Treasury’s announcement, however, was largely ignored by most major US media. This, despite a high-profile attack on an oil tanker, the HV Mercer Street, off the coast of Oman in July 2021. The attack, attributed to Iran, left a Romanian and a British citizen dead.
To fully appreciate the scope of Iran’s malign influence, the press must cover the criminal network that is the IRGC. The Quds Force engages in both thievery and terror, stealing from the Iranian people and others alike.
(Note: A slightly different version of this op-ed appeared as an article in the Algemeiner on Jan. 10, 2022)