Iran-linked drug trafficking on rise amid financial crisis
Iran and its staunchest allies, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, seem to be stepping up their drug trafficking activities, which span several continents.
A Lebanese man, Ghassan Diab, was last month extradited from Cyprus to the US to face charges linked to the laundering of drug money for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. According to the US Department of Justice, Diab is alleged “to have conspired to engage, and actually engaged, in the laundering of drug proceeds through the use of the black market peso exchange in support of Hezbollah’s global criminal support network.”
Meanwhile, also last month, Italian authorities announced they had seized 15.4 tons of counterfeit Captagon pills, which were produced in Syria — a country that is believed to be the largest producer and exporter of the drug. The counterfeit Captagon pills were worth an estimated $1.1 billion. Captagon is banned in many countries because of its addictive nature. The seized pills were so carefully hidden that airport scanners did not detect them, according to the commander of the Naples financial police. It was the interception of phone calls made by local criminals that allowed the police to find the drugs.
Greek authorities last year also seized a large haul of Captagon pills, worth more than half a billion dollars, which again came from Syria. The Greek financial crimes unit said in a statement: “It is the largest quantity that has ever been seized globally, depriving organized crime of proceeds that would have exceeded $660 million.”
It is difficult to believe that the Syrian authorities and their allies Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are unaware of the large-scale production of the illegal drug. Syria can be considered a good candidate for Hezbollah and Iran to produce these pills because there is hardly any international monitoring in the country.
Rouhani has admitted that the Islamic Republic is encountering the worst economic crisis since its establishment in 1979.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Iran and its allies are under significant pressure financially due to the strain US sanctions have imposed on Tehran. The sanctions have caused Iran to cut its funding to its militias in Syria. Iran’s militants are reportedly not getting their salaries and benefits, making it extremely difficult for them to continue fighting and destabilizing the region. A fighter with an Iranian-backed militia in Syria told the New York Times last year: “The golden days are gone and will never return. Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.”
Feeling the pressure of sanctions on Iran, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has also called on his group’s fundraising arm “to provide the opportunity for jihad with money and also to help with this ongoing battle.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has admitted that the Islamic Republic is encountering the worst economic crisis since its establishment in 1979.
Revenues from drug trafficking can be a significant boost to Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Iran. The roles of Hezbollah and Iran — specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — in smuggling drugs date back to the early 1980s. According to the book “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God,” written by Matthew Levitt: “Following the establishment of Hezbollah in the early 1980s — recruiting heavily from key Bekaa Valley tribes and families — it benefited from a religious edict, or fatwa, issued in the mid-1980s providing religious justification for the otherwise impure and illicit activity of drug trafficking. Presumed to have been issued by Iranian religious leaders, the fatwa reportedly read: ‘We are making drugs for Satan — America and the Jews. If we cannot kill them with guns, we will kill them with drugs.’” According to an FBI report declassified in November 2008, “Hezbollah’s spiritual leader… has stated that narcotics trafficking is morally acceptable if the drugs are sold to Western infidels as part of the war against the enemies of Islam.”
Iran has also been increasing its cooperation with Latin American drug cartels. This will not only help Tehran and Hezbollah bypass global sanctions and generate revenue, but it also helps the Iranian regime to infiltrate and pose a threat to the US, which is considered its No. 1 enemy. It is hard to believe that these illicit drugs do not enter the US and Canada. The Washington-based Center for a Secure Free Society in 2014 published a paper titled “Canada on Guard: Assessing the Immigration Security Threat of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.” It stated that Venezuela has granted many passports to radical Islamists. These passports could be used for travel to North America or Europe.
It is worth recalling that Iran recruited members of a Mexican drug cartel in 2011 in a failed attempt to assassinate the then-Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel Al-Jubeir, by blowing up a restaurant in Washington.
The international community must pay close attention and disrupt the dangerous drug trafficking triangle that Iran, Hezbollah and Syria have most likely developed and expanded.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh