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  • Jan 19, 2024

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps's role in drug trafficking

IRGC's drug network extends globally, involving Latin America, and South America, and using Hezbollah for money laundering. They control drug trafficking routes, aided by owning ports and logistics in Iran. 

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The IRGC, formed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, has a history of corruption from the early days of its inception. 

Unlike Iran’s Army which is tasked with protecting Iran’s borders and its territorial integrity, the IRGC’s primary role is to protect the political system; to promote the theocratic regime’s religious fervour domestically and to fulfil its expansionist revolutionary ideas globally. 

Article 1 of the IRGC first constitution states: 

“Guarding the Islamic revolution in Iran and expanding it based on the ideology of authentic Islam and implementing the wishes of the Islamic Republic is the goal of forming the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

Article 10 determines one of the IRGC’s main tasks as “Supporting the world’s liberating and rights-seeking movements of the oppressed under the supervision of the Revolutionary Council and the permission of the government.” 


They became the main military force in the country as the Iran-Iraq war continued and that growth continued after the war with its retired officers holding important positions in different aspects of the Iranian society. From the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) to owning factories and power plants) IRGC’s influence quickly grew and penetrated many facets of Iranian society. 

In terms of its size today they own, at the very least, two-thirds of the nation. I’ve been comparing them to squid, as they are spreading their influence throughout various spheres of society. 

There's evidence suggesting Khomeini allowed the IRGC to engage in drug trafficking to fund the Iran-Iraq war. Based on Our investigation in the Kutena Podcast, Khomeini accepted for IRGC to get involved in the trafficking on the condition that the drugs would not land in Iran but to be sent to “Koffar”, the non-believers. That meant over time the IRGC took control of the operations related to the trafficking inside and outside Iran. 

One important factor in the expansion of the operation was the creation of the Quds force: A wing of IRGC that focuses on the expansion of Islamic Republic values beyond Iran’s borders. Quds Force which started as a military force to defend the interest of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, soon became a powerful tool to control and oppress opposition inside and outside Iran as well as furthering the interest of the Islamic Republic. 

After the war, Qasim Suleimani who later became the infamous commander of Quds Forces was sent to oversee the operation of dismantling the drug trafficking in the eastern provinces of Iran namely Kerman and Sistan and Baluchistan. This is around the same time that the war in Bosnia is in full swing. Iran with the green light from the Clinton administration sends its forces under the disguise of “Red Crescent” to Bosnia. This is the first time that the Quds force has a specific budget for its operations as well as access to resources such as private airline (Mahan Air). 

The operation in Bosnia created and enormous access to North Africa and Europe and the taste of it made the Quds force hungry for more. After Iran was expelled from Bosnia Quds Force’s new commander, Suleimani, used the lessons he learnt from there to export the drugs he confiscated in the eastern part of Iran. This was the start of an expansive network of trafficking that only grew after that. 

Recruiting criminals:

Around the same time that in Sistan and Baluchistan and Kerman, Qassim Suleimani started to clamp down on drug trafficking and arrest the traffickers or “Ashrar” another trend started showing up inside the Iranian prisons.


Around 20 years ago, I interviewed a young guy who was arrested and was put on death row and then was beaten up inside the prison and was asked to collaborate: “We will release you if you start working for us. We will allow you to continue your operation.”


One of the examples that can showcase how this operation and the strategy have worked during these years is “Naji Sharifi Zindashti”. “Naji Sharifi Zindashti'' was a drug trafficker and heroin trafficker in northwest Iran. He was arrested in the early 2000s, and he was put in jail on death row. He fled the jail with the help of his friend. Now we can say his collaboration either started inside prison or soon after his escape. 


He fled to Turkey and created his criminal group and soon after became one of the biggest drug traffickers in Turkey. His name became a household name in Turkey due to his arrest at one point. But until then he collaborated with the IRGC in terrorizing, murdering and assassinating Iranian descendants in Turkey. He also was successful in creating a successful money laundering operation for IRGC in Turkey at the height of sanctions against IRI in the 2010s.


After his arrest in Turkey and as a part of international drug trafficking, Zindashti goes back to Iran and becomes a successful businessman. According to our investigations, he has started collaborating with “Ali Shamkhani” who used to be the head of IRGC’s navy and at the time of his collaboration with Zindashti was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran


Zindashti continued his drug business and in 2023 some estimates that he owns 20% of heroin trafficking inside Iran. He's been praised in different official gatherings by the IRGC.


The Global Business:

IRGC's drug network extends globally, involving Latin America, and South America, and using Hezbollah for money laundering. They control drug trafficking routes, aided by owning ports and logistics in Iran. They also produce methamphetamine and other drugs in underground labs, impacting countries in the region.

Despite the decentralized structure, which has been used to allow deniability (a pattern we see in other aspects of governance in IRI) IRGC maintains control, recruiting through prisons and using the death penalty to coerce cooperation. Estimates suggest they gain billions from illicit drug activities, potentially much more than reported.


Part of this network has been documented in the Cassandra Project, an effort led by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to undercut Hezbollah funding from illicit drug sources in South America. 



The illegal activities of groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic are not limited to the Kassandra case. Before and after the Kassandra case, there have been extensive activities in drug trafficking, money laundering, and similar actions. In 2011, the English newspaper Times, citing statements from former officials and diplomatic sources of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reported on the central role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in drug trafficking within Iran and abroad.


According to the Times, the IRGC receives billions of dollars annually from drug trafficking, currently monopolizing drug trafficking in Iran and having connections with criminal networks worldwide. Additionally, on 28 Aban 1389 (November 19, 2010), Nigerian government officials announced the discovery of 130 kilograms of heroin in a shipment from Iran to Nigeria, intended for Europe.


In 2017, Herbert McMaster, a security advisor to Trump in the United States, accused the IRGC of drug trafficking from Afghanistan. He stated in a speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, "The IRGC uses drug trafficking from Afghanistan to enrich itself. They poison the world and use this money to kill people. The IRGC, which is an international criminal network, engages in buying and selling humans, weapons, money transfers, and other prohibited goods to other countries to accumulate more money."


As an example, on October 15, 2021, the President of Azerbaijan accused the Islamic Republic and Armenia of collusion and cooperation in drug trafficking over the past three decades. Ilham Aliyev further stated that since then, Iran has intensified drug trafficking from other border regions of Azerbaijan, and during this period, the discovery of heroin sent from Iran to Europe has doubled.


Examples of such activities are not scarce. It appears that the Islamic Republic government has been involved in the black market for years, using any means to generate income and exert influence globally. In the midst of this, the interests and funds obtained from these activities have led to political conflicts within the Iranian government. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, in July 2011, used the term "smuggling brothers" and said, "No ministry has the right to have a dock outside the customs. Wherever extralegal rights are granted, there is corruption. It doesn't matter who does it or with what intention because making exceptions and giving extralegal authority creates corruption."


Although it seemed that the statements of the former head of state in Iran referred to the smuggling of goods, at the same time, some had mentioned the connection of these statements to drug trafficking by the IRGC. Hassan Rouhani, the former president of Iran in 2019, pointed out the existence of dirty money resulting from the drug trade in Iran.


The participation of the Islamic Republic in the black market is a major international corruption that has led to the formation of international mafia networks. However, alongside this, within Iran, power struggles and tensions over the benefits of this trade have intensified. While many small-scale drug traffickers in Iran face the death penalty, the government itself is informally but deeply involved in this corruption.

In this battle, it is the people from the most deprived part of society are the ones who suffer most.

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