By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin *
Iran may be falling apart before our eyes, as furious mass protests and general strikes enter their sixth week and continue to gain momentum. But some economic sectors are enjoying a golden age: The exporters of crystal meth, weaponized drones and a broad spectrum of other murderous contraband goods have never had it so good.
It came as a wake-up call to many that the kamikaze drones raining death on civilians throughout Ukraine were in fact Iranian imports. Moreover, intelligence experts established that Iranian military personnel had based themselves in Crimea to exert direct control over these killing machines, and to learn lessons with a view to future advances in Iranian military hardware. Devastating strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure have prompted a new exodus of refugees toward Europe before the cold of winter sets in.
Tehran has already delivered 1,750 drones to Moscow, in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution. Iran has also agreed to export hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles, with widespread concern that these relatively low-cost weapons could significantly reconfigure the contours of the Ukraine conflict. Iranian officials boast that a further 22 countries have expressed interest in weapons purchases as a result of the opportune publicity afforded by the carnage in Ukraine.
Iranian drones and missiles have also been used to stage attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Hezbollah in Lebanon threatened drone strikes against Israeli offshore drilling facilities if it didn’t get what it wanted. The Iran-backed Houthi militia used drones to target international shipping last week at a Yemeni oil terminal. Iran’s missile program, the largest and most sophisticated in the region, now comprises thousands of warheads, and missiles with a range of 2,000km.
As for narcotics, an investigation by the Washington Post exposed the devastating consequences of Iran’s growing role in the methamphetamine trade. As of 2017, innovations in methamphetamine production — including the sourcing of a key ingredient from a plant endemic to Central Asia — made the drug much cheaper to synthesize, and Iran has become a global production center.
Turkish authorities report how cross-border smuggling networks are controlled by Iranian nationals, with a near doubling of seizures over the past year. Jordan’s anti-narcotics department, meanwhile, reported a 20-fold increase in seizures of methamphetamine (more than 45 tons) already this year.
Matters are infinitely worse in Iraq, where Basra has become an immense regional hub for the narcotics trade, controlled by powerful Iran-backed militias with government connections. These Hashd Al-Shaabi militias make a killing by monopolizing the mass movement of contraband goods, including heroin from Afghanistan.
Social workers and medics testify to the devastating impact this has on Iraq’s society, where sky-high unemployment, political chaos, and the absence of a social safety net create optimal conditions for a hopeless generation seeking to lose themselves in chemical oblivion. Until recently, drug addiction levels in Iraq were negligible.
The consequences for Iran itself have been devastating. According to (probably massively inaccurate) official Iranian statistics there are about 4.4 million nationwide drug users and addicts, and at least 5,000 drug deaths per year.
In two other states under Iranian tutelage — Syria and Lebanon — legitimate economies have imploded, to be replaced by multibillion-dollar narco economies dedicated to producing immense volumes of the highly addictive drug Captagon. Hundreds of millions of Captagon tablets are being smuggled through ports in south Europe and across the Arab world.
Powerful vested interests this year pressured Lebanon’s judicial system to indefinitely suspend a verdict against the “King of Captagon,” Muhammad Daqou, on charges of attempting to smuggle 800,000 Captagon tablets worth $94 million from Latakia to Malaysia. Daqou controls vast production facilities on the Lebanon-Syria border. His wife Sahar Mohsen is a close relative of Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah’s head of security, who controls the movement of weapons and drugs in and out of Lebanon. Daqou was released from custody despite a photo of the invoice for the Malaysian drugs consignment being found on his phone.
To exert control over a swath of territory in the lawless Lebanon-Syria border region, Hezbollah has overseen a policy of demographic engineering, bussing in new residents whose loyalty can be guaranteed. In late 2021, paramilitary forces linked to Daqou subjected the border village of Tfail to an eight-hour armed assault, with the goal of terrorizing local people into leaving.
Hezbollah also has a massive stake in the cocaine trade, facilitated by Lebanese émigré communities stretching from South America to West Africa and back through a network of Lebanese and regional financial institutions.
The profits are clandestinely invested back into paramilitary and terrorist activities, enabling Tehran to reinforce its preeminent regional posture. In the same way, international oil sanctions prompted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to take over large segments of the oil export industry, meaning that billions of dollars in revenues are funneled back into war-making and bankrolling instability, as well as into the corrupt pockets of leading ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard officers.
Western states apparently regard Iran’s multibillion-dollar narcotics and military exports as a distant problem, destabilizing faraway states, but these massive revenue-generating activities are allowing Iran to mutate into a global threat.
Where do people think the massive funds have come from to pay for an acceleration of uranium enrichment? How has a state besieged by decades of sanctions come to possess the largest and most sophisticated missile arsenals in the region, which it generously distributes to its paramilitary puppets? Where has the money come from for vast reinforced underground bunkers and tunnels, making both conventional and nonconventional arsenals invulnerable to attack? And who ultimately underwrites the salaries and equipping of hundreds of thousands of Khomeinist militiamen throughout the region?
This is not as much a threat for Iran’s immediate neighbors as it is for a planet that doesn’t in the near future desire to have to grapple with a terrorist state that possesses the globe-straddling annihilative capacities of 100 North Koreas.
This is yet another example of the failure of global leadership, as world leaders neglect to take seriously the malign consequences of the tide of drugs, weapons, nuclear technology and terrorism flooding out of Iran. Do they seriously not recognize the threat, or do they simply lack the vision and resolve to take action?
• 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.