THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC
You and I come by road or rail, but economists travel on infrastructure,” said former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.36 It is not hard to escape the conclusion that the ‘Iron Lady’ helped cause all this mess.
When she and United States President Ronald Reagan took on the Soviet Union, they opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of consequences. When they were joined by Mikhail Gorbachev on the world stage, the collapse of Moscow’s empire and resulting geopolitical gerrymandering led directly to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
A quarter of a century on from the end of the war, and we are looking, some pensively, at a piece of infrastructure that even Mrs. Thatcher would not have given too much credence to.
Squatting behind a large rock, armed with binoculars kindly provided by our guide, we are honed in on the rather nondescript 13th century Khodaafarin Bridge.37
We have made our way south from Stepanakert, travelling on quiet, almost deserted roads. Leaving the territory’s main town in darkness, it is now barely dawn. One has to be there early to see the regular crossing.
Now we hover behind an oversized boulder, overlooking a deep-sided valley and the Aras River below. In the distance, on the other side of the valley is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This is the main crossing point between Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh. Illegal under international law. Remote. Well beyond the reach of global law and order agencies. And therefore useful.
Tehran professes to be an honest broker and has made numerous very public attempts to breach the impasse between Baku and Yerevan over Nagorno- Karabakh.38 Iran’s policy towards the conflict and the two protagonists is shaped by a number of factors, not least Tehran’s desire to pre-empt ethnic strife among its large domestic Azerbaijani minority, while also balancing Iran’s relations with Russia and the United States.
Yet Khodaafarin Bridge can be seen as an example of Iran’s cynicism. Public efforts are made to project the nation as a bastion of peace and diplomacy. A nation of piety and order. While at the same time pouring hard drugs and arms across an illegal border.
On September 25th, 2018, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that the world is suffering from recklessness and insisted that some nations have a reckless disregard for international values and institutions. He described Iran as a “meticulous guardian for a world free from violence”.39
He concluded his address by stating, straight faced, that: “The world will not have a better friend than Iran if peace is what you seek.”40
Collins Dictionary lists the following synonyms for ‘hypocrite’: Fraud. Deceiver. Pretender. Charlatan. Impostor. Pharisee. Dissembler.
Iran shares a 611-kilometre border with Azerbaijan.41 Of that, some 132 kilometres have been removed from Baku’s control.42 A line stretching between the Armenian town of Meghri and the Azerbaijani town of Horadiz represents Tehran’s interface with the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh.
To offer perspective, the Arizona-Mexico border is 370 kilometres,43 the Anglo-Scottish border 154 kilometres44 and the Korean Peninsula’s Military Demarcation Line runs some 248 kilometres.45 The point being, that 132 kilometres is comparable with many major borders, and allows plenty of room for quietly administered maleficence.
Soon after the Shah of Iran was forced from power in 1979, the revolution’s leaders began to consider a national guard, tasked with preserving the new Islamic revolution and counterbalancing the country’s conventional military. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini created this new force, sepah-e-pasdaran or “army of the guardians”.46
Most foreign governments refer to it as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – a force that, decades later, has become a key player both inside Iran and across the region.
The United States Government is poised to designate the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group47 due to its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, efforts to prop up the once beleaguered Syrian administration of Bashar Al Assad, and its activities in supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Khomeini had envisioned a body that protected the revolution at home, but now the Revolutionary Guard has evolved into one that seeks to export revolution abroad.48 From its origin as an ideologically driven militia, the Revolutionary Guard has taken an ever more assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society.
In order to finance this – including huge annual payments to surrogates like Hezbollah49 and Hamas50, funding provided to the Houthi51 and other illicit groups52 – the Revolutionary Guard has become a state within a state, one armed with a mobilisation of some 125,000 men,53 the equivalent of Spain’s entire armed forces.
In order to finance its domestic and international activities it has constructed around itself a powerful military-industrial-financial complex. The group’s commercial arms stretch into every area of life across the vast nation and include Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters, one of Iran’s largest contractors,54 Oriental Oil Kish,55 and dozens of other profitable concerns that feed off the state.56
In August 2007, the Los Angeles Times stated: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has quietly become one of the most significant political and economic powers in the Islamic Republic, with ties to more than 100 companies which, by some estimates control more than $12 billion in business and construction, economists and Iranian political analysts say.57
In order to pursue its own agenda, and that of the mullahs with their overarching desire to export their conservative fervour across the region, the Revolutionary Guard grew into a corporate giant. And more.
Through a constant widening of its powers and reach, the Revolutionary Guard expanded to control Iran’s sea, air and land borders. With ports, airports and roads under its purview, the Revolutionary Guard did not shy away from utilising them to smuggle goods and line its pockets.
A close look at the Revolutionary Guard’s involvement in Iran’s underground economy shows that they are no strangers to the underworld. Indeed, they control it. As Al Arabiya reported in June 2017: Over the years, the Iranian administration has utilised every form of illegal activity in its bid to break international sanctions, which had been imposed by the United Nations over its non-compliance to adhere to its international obligations over its clandestine nuclear programme, and so with the international illicit drug market estimated at $320 billion annually, the Revolutionary Guard decided to “dabble”... The Guard know that by using illegal drugs as a tool, turning it into a plague amongst its enemies, it can slaughter more youngsters than it possibly could on the battlefield. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is working with the Taliban to set up drug trafficking networks, selling the drugs in European countries to finance the militant group, according to security officials.58
Narcotics would provide their most lucrative strand of finance. On March 7th, 2012, the United States Treasury released a statement, ‘Treasury Designates Iranian Quds Force General Overseeing Afghan Heroin Trafficking Through Iran’, which stated: The United States Department of the Treasury today designated Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) General Gholamreza Baghbani as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act)... General Gholamreza Baghbani is an IRGC-QF officer and the current chief of the IRGC-QF office in Zahedan, Iran in south-eastern Iran, near the Afghan border. General Baghbani allowed Afghan narcotics traffickers to smuggle opiates through Iran in return for assistance. For example, Afghan narcotics traffickers moved weapons to the Taliban on behalf of Baghbani. In return, General Baghbani has helped facilitate the smuggling of heroin precursor chemicals through the Iranian border. He also helped facilitate shipments of opium into Iran.59
In March 2015, Stephen Hughes summarised the widely understood view of the situation when he wrote in the Jerusalem Post: ...on November 16th, 2012, the United States added Mullah Naim Barich, the Taliban’s leader for the southern Afghan province of Helmand, to the list of Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers. While the designation did not directly link Barich to Baghbani, the Taliban commander was involved in smuggling heroin to Iran. Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani supports heroin and opium smuggling in Iran and Afghanistan “as part of a broader scheme to support terrorism.” The Iranian general supports the drug smugglers in order to arm the Taliban in Afghanistan.60
Tehran’s enthusiasm for the heroin trade not only represented a profit centre, but a Narco War that, it is hoped, would undermine the West. Through the nation’s bonyads, wealthy, non-governmental, ostensibly charitable foundations controlled by key clerics, organisations like the Mostazafan Foundation (Foundation of the Oppressed or The Mostazafan Foundation)61 and Bonyad Shahid va Omur-e Janbazan (Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs),62 the Revolutionary Guard were able to launder billions in profits from their illicit activities.
Indeed, so comfortable are Iranian smugglers with the strength of their operation that, just on the day we are there, five trucks openly operate close to the illicit border into Nagorno-Karabakh, across the Aras River and into Europe’s back passage. They have Iranian plates.
“Every day,” grumbles my companion, as we look on. A veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Tigran fought to win what he believed was his rightful homeland. The promises made to him and his fellow fighters, of a bright future, peace, development and a decent life did not come to pass.
Tigran, who asked for his surname not to be published due to the inevitability of reprisals for cooperation with us, accepts that the economic implications of international isolation mean that the dreams of the early 1990s had to be put on hold by necessity. And, indeed, may never happen.
Like many, he says, the ultimate betrayal comes in former and current leaders of the territory becoming enriched as they allow the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh to become a hub for narco operations. “My friends died. What for? So that those dickheads in Yerevan can get rich allowing the Iranians to use us to ship drugs?” Several expletives later, he adds: “All we want is a land, and peace.”
They make strange bedfellows. A fervent Islamic Republic locked into Armenia, first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, an event traditionally dated to AD 301.63 Money talks though.
Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari is the Iranian commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. As the Public Broadcasting Service notes: ‘A Hardliner’s Hardliner’.64 It adds that he is: Credited with influencing elections in favour of hardline candidates, step forward President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who oversaw the brutal suppression of the nation’s peaceful Green Movement, openly works towards the eradication of Israel and has played a keen role in plans for Iran’s ‘Islamic bomb’, the mullah’s nuclear capability. The latter is a dream that he has not abandoned.
Neither has his intention to spread the cancer of his extremism, not least through its increasingly powerful proxies. Somewhat belatedly, for example, only in October 2018 did the United States Justice Department designate Lebanon’s Hezbollah a “transnational crime organisation”.65
All of which leads us to Khodaafarin Bridge on a brisk autumn morning in the Caucasus, just after dawn.
This is not be the only narco-link into Nagorno-Karabakh. The isolation and geography of the Aras River presents many potential crossing points from Iran that are surely utilised on other days. A simple dinghy is enough to cross the river and land smaller consignments of Afghanistan’s poisonous export into Europe’s back door. This is likely the modus operandi of independent smugglers, and likely also of Tehran’s industrial, in-house smuggling operation. Locally it is well known that the Aras River is a porous border used for drug shipments. The authorities studiously maintain a blind eye to this and indeed, one would assume, have a personal stake in its success.
The Khodaafarin Bridge is also off the grid and suitable for this illicit purpose also. A simple locked gate and some loosely-wound barbed wire gives the outward appearance of disuse. In reality it is anything but.
Five nondescript trucks trundle down the Iranian side of the valley and park up near the most complete of the two bridges. A group of perhaps 30 men disembark from one. Brazenly, they are wearing dark green khakis. What look like military issue uniforms.
The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force is commanded by Major General Qasem Soleimani,66 an almost James Bond baddie. Grey-haired Soleimani would not look out of place facing off against Daniel Craig, played by an almost doppelgänger Sean Connery.
It is a bit flippant to consider perhaps. Soleimani was directly responsible for the rise of Hezbollah, propped up Bashar Al Assad,67 and fuelled the rise of an Islamic religious-political-armed movement in Yemen that became the Houthi68 and plunged Yemen into its current nightmare.
What we view at the Khodaafarin Bridge that morning perhaps explains how the Revolutionary Guard find themselves able to finance its multibillion dollar efforts to export the Islamic revolution and breed extremism.
Do not forget, of course, this has been done almost continually in the face of debilitating economic sanctions. Western powers have been sanctioning Iran since the mid-1990s over its sponsorship of terrorism and later its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Restrictions on trade and exports have had a “crippling” effect on the Iranian economy.69
After brief respite under President Barack Obama,70 just weeks before we stood in the early morning gloom peering at Khodaafarin Bridge, President Donald Trump’s first wave of “snap back” sanctions had come into force.71 Tehran had seen its people suffer economic consequence. But the Revolutionary Guard still had a job to do. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Rouhani seem to consider the latter of greater importance.
The men in uniforms spread out across the bridge and form a human chain. Several others, armed with rifles, take up sentry positions.
We hunker down. Despite being some half a kilometre away from this activity, the valley was almost silent apart from a few ubiquitous cows. Foreigners claiming to be ‘tourists’ were unlikely to be believed.
Over the next 20 minutes, the remaining four trucks were emptied, disgorging package upon package, carefully passed across to the Nagorno-Karabakh side. Almost amusingly, they look almost the same as one would see on the Netflix series Narcos, or on CNN and BBC when international authorities are showing off their latest seizure: covered in white plastic and bound with brown tape.
Unless Netflix is filming here surreptitiously, the same morning as we happen to be in the vicinity, then it is clear what we are witnessing.
Across the bridge, these are loaded onto several small, pockmarked and unremarkable, unmarked vehicles by the ubiquitous skinny, young and innocent looking Artsakh Defense Army conscripts we see everywhere across the territory.
The convoys move off on both sides of the Aras. Tigran refused to follow. Too dangerous. Instead we hang back for what seems like an age and head to Stepanakert for tea and more zhingyalov hats, bread stuffed with grass.
As the Washington Post reported in November 2012: Even as Western sanctions ravage their economy, some Iranians are reaping a cash harvest from an unexpected source: a booming illicit drug industry... Drug-related violence has spilled into the Caucasus. Regional officials say heavily armed drug gangs wage pitched battles with police and border guards, sometimes using weapons and military hardware taken from battlefields in Afghanistan and Iran.
In Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbour, naval patrols in the Caspian Sea are playing cat-and-mouse with Iranian smugglers who use modified speedboats. On land, captured Iranians have been found carrying United States-made night-vision goggles, and some have used bombs and armoured vehicles to smash through checkpoints, Western and Middle Eastern officials say.
“Iran is a black hole,” said a senior United States law enforcement official familiar with drug trafficking in the region.
At least some of the overseas routes are protected by Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps with a long history of smuggling contraband, according to United States officials, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to discuss confidential assessments of Iran’s drug trade. The Quds Force is closely allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group with deep ties to drug trafficking around the world, including Latin America.
“Both of these organisations are now heavily involved in the global drug trade,” Michael Braun, the former operations chief for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, said at a congressional hearing in February. “Their participation in that effort presents them with a myriad of opportunities with which to build their terrorist and criminal capacity in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere.”72
Less than an hour after witnessing events at Khodaafarin Bridge we were breakfasting back in Stepanakert. It seemed almost prosaic considering what we had witnessed. Over ensuing weeks the Revolutionary Guard’s deadly merchandise would snake its way Westward into Europe, a harbinger for yet another wave of human misery.
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