Beware Persians bearing gifts! How Iran’s banks funded terror
When King Hamad Al-Khalifa came to power in Bahrain in 1999, his amnesty for exiles who had colluded with Iran to overthrow the established order during the 1980s and 1990s was conducted in a similar reconciliatory spirit. The fact that Tehran’s theocratic leaders claimed Bahrain and other Arab territories as their own was downplayed. Iran was a powerful neighbor. Perhaps constructive engagement was safer than open hostility.
Today it is possible to perceive the consequences of well-intentioned efforts at détente. We now know that Tehran spent the decade before 2011 putting measures in place that would be used to fundamentally destabilize the Arab world. The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force established spy rings and sleeper cells within GCC states — lying low, yet inexorably expanding their capacity and awaiting potent opportunities. Funding for militant GCC oppositionists expanded.
During the 1990s, Saudi Shiite terrorists were used to attack Western and GCC interests; a massive 1996 blast in Khobar left 20 dead, mostly US servicemen. While parts of the Bahrain opposition engaged in the political process, radical elements received Iranian support to engage in rioting and other destabilizing actions. Documents show how Bahraini radicals in London benefited from Iranian largesse. In 2011, the Quds Force even sponsored an attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
From 2004 onward, Iraqi Shiite militants benefited from vast quantities of Iranian support with the aim of dragging a weakened and divided Iraqi state firmly into Tehran’s orbit. When Hezbollah was pushed into an increasingly confrontational posture, the result was the devastating 2006 war with Israel, in which Israel’s air force slaughtered over a thousand Lebanese citizens. A crippled Lebanon — where leading politicians had been murdered in Iran-sponsored assassinations — drifted inexorably into Tehran’s orbit.
We are now learning about an additional chapter of this pre-2011 Iranian meddling: The Washington Post published an exclusive report showing how Future Bank, a 2004 joint Iranian venture on Bahraini soil, laundered billions of dollars — avoiding the sanctions on Iran’s banking system and masking illicit transactions for purposes of organized crime, arms proliferation and terrorism. Auditors discovered “hundreds of bank accounts tied to individuals convicted of crimes including money laundering and terrorism financing, as well as phantom loans provided to companies that operate as fronts for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC].” The two primary Iranian shareholders, Bank Melli and Bank Saderat, had been internationally designated for channeling funds to Iran’s nuclear program and terrorism networks.
The Bahraini authorities discovered how this “Trojan horse” bank (which was closed in 2015) “routinely altered financial documents to mask illicit trade between Iran and dozens of foreign partners.” Evidence of at least $7 billion in illicit transactions is understood to be the tip of the iceberg. As early as 2005 senior Bahraini officials briefed me about how entities such as Future Bank were funneling investment through GCC commercial properties which could then be laundered for illicit purposes. At that time, however, it was impossible to see the complete picture and the potential consequences.
Iran has spent the decade before 2011 putting measures in place that would be used to fundamentally destabilize the Arab world.
Commercial networks throughout the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait were exploited as front companies for similar sanctions-busting criminality. Instead of constraining the regime, sanctions allowed the IRGC to enrich itself and bankroll regional terrorism through control of this lucrative black market. Funding was channeled to terrorist groups that in Bahrain were responsible for killing over 20 police, and countless bombings. The “godfather” of Bahrain’s militants, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, used Future Bank to hold millions of dollars in questionable funds. He now faces charges of money laundering. Leaders of Bahraini terrorist groups based themselves in Iran, engaging in campaigns of recruitment, training militants, arms smuggling and planning attacks.
Just as during the early 1980s Tehran staged coup attempts and terrorist attacks, and funded insurgent groups in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Kuwait, Yemen and Iraq, this continued pattern of activities throughout the 1990s and 2000s illustrates how the strategy of exporting revolution across the Arab world was never abandoned; although the pragmatic requirements of recovery from the devastating 1980s war with Iraq forced the ayatollahs to temporarily dial down their meddling and bide their time.
Many years ago, I had occasion to visit the Saudi royal household and see the magnificent Persian carpet given by President Khatami to King Abdullah after his 1999 visit to Riyadh. With Iran exploiting that charm offensive to shower gifts and investment upon the Arab world, I was reminded of the legend of how the people of Troy welcomed the gift of a giant wooden horse within their city walls, only to be slaughtered by the soldiers hiding within. Beware Persians bearing gifts!
Like a parasitic organism lying in wait to infect a new host and devour it from the inside, the Islamic Republic of Iran will remain an existential threat as long as it continues to exist. Even supposedly dovish figures such as Khatami and Hassan Rouhani have a merely cosmetic impact on aggressive overseas policies controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.
While the Trump administration hedges its bets over whether to maintain a presence in Syria to constrain Iranian expansionism, or whether its aspirations to get tough on Iran are merely hot air and rhetoric — for the Arab world the neutralization of Iran as an active threat is increasingly a matter of life and death.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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