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Wider war inevitable as Iran continues to expand its proxies

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp. (IRGC) has been successfully expanding its weapons-smuggling network and steadily enhancing the number of Shiite militant proxies from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean, according to recent reports. If this continues unchecked, a wider and much deadlier conflict is almost inevitable.

Iranian regime sources have revealed a treasure trove of documents to the Iranian opposition that name and extensively detail an intricate regional web of front companies and ports in the Gulf, used by Tehran to smuggle weapons to its global terror network. The IRGC has become a financial empire, using a network of front shipping companies to fund its terror activities and Shiite extremist proxies throughout the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria.

The newly revealed intelligence, provided by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was gained from IRGC sources. The documents describe how it now virtually controls the bulk of Iran’s exports and imports, and includes specifics on the IRGC’s exclusive use and control of a major portion of shipping docks in the country. The import and export of illicit goods from these docks amount to some $12 billion annually.

Essentially, the IRGC has managed to set up the world’s most extensive black-market smuggling network, which to date has not been meaningfully affected by non-nuclear international sanctions.

The IRGC needed ports to ship their weapons once all available docks on the Yemeni coast were closed to Iranian ships by the Arab Coalition. The IRGC’s front companies then began using ports in Oman to smuggle weapons to Yemen, specifically Sultan Qaboos port in Muscat, Sohar port in north Oman, and Salalah port in the south.

The former commander of the IRGC Naval Force, and currently the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, is head of the illicit weapons-smuggling campaign. His two children are directors of a front company called the Admiral Group, with offices in Tehran and Dubai.

The company was specifically established to organize the export of weapons to Iran’s proxy forces in Yemen. By 2015, it was shipping its deadly cargo via Sohar port in Oman. The weapons were then transferred to Yemen via smuggling routes overland. 

According to the intelligence gathered by the Iranian opposition’s sources in the IRGC, its major engineering wing is known as Khatam Al-Anbiya, which ships cargo throughout the Arabian Gulf. It also ships via Sohar port. The IRGC shipping companies that serve as a front for Khatam Al-Anbiya, such as Valfajr shipped their cargo via Hudaidah port in Yemen prior to the blockade.

This exposure of Iran’s illicit shipping program offers us valuable insight on how it utilizes a new generation of hybrid warfare that blends ostensibly commercial civilian cargo and companies with asymmetric conflict. Iran has long learned the value of maintaining redundant lines of supply to sustain and expand its extremist proxy networks, which serve as its primary line of retaliatory deterrence against its adversaries.

The recent revelations of the IRGC’s smuggling operations mean it benefits financially from concessions offered to Tehran as part of the nuclear deal that make it easier for Iranian business to operate globally.

Oubai Shahbandar

This development means countless trade counterparts of these IRGC front companies throughout the Middle East and Europe must re-examine and ultimately halt any ongoing financial relationship with these Iranian companies, which launder funds to finance terror and smuggle a wide variety of weaponry that destabilizes the region on Tehran’s behalf.

Recently the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yusuf Otaiba, penned an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he described how Iran’s aggressive behavior and destabilizing activity has markedly increased since the nuclear deal was signed. He is right. The IRGC seems to have bought itself a new lease of life while the West’s attention was exclusively focused on Iran’s nuclear program.

The recent revelations of the IRGC’s smuggling operations also mean it benefits financially from concessions offered to Tehran as part of the nuclear deal that make it easier for Iranian business to operate globally.

Further adding fuel to the sectarian fire has been Iran’s Iraqi Shiite militant network based in Syria. Led by Akram Al-Kaabi, a notorious militant commander who was once detained by US forces in Iraq, the Iraqi Hezbollah units in Syria recently pledged to further expand their presence throughout Syria and into the Golan Heights. During a press conference in Iran, the group’s spokesman indicated his forces were ready to go on the offensive in the Golan at the behest of the Syrian regime.

The lesson is clear: The more emboldened and better supplied Iran’s militant proxy networks become, the greater threat they pose to the national security interests and stability of all states that stand to lose the most to Iran’s hegemonic aspirations.

Its smuggling activity can only be halted not just by a physical blockade, but by a blockade of all financial transactions with known or suspected IRGC front companies. This will require the full support of all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and relevant EU bodies. It will also require renewed effort to prevent Iraq from being used as an overland supply route for Iran to its proxies in Syria.

Iran’s threat network is multifaceted and readily skilled in developing complex smuggling routes, both overland and via shipping lanes. Shutting down its terror supply web will require renewed effort by the international community to finally label the IRGC and all affiliated commercial and military wings as terror entities.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.