On Tuesday, a Reuters report highlighted the ongoing arms smuggling activities being carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The report quoted anonymous Iranian government sources as saying that the Islamic Republic and the IRGC had worked out new procedures for the transfer of missile components, cash, drugs, and other illicit goods to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, whom Iran has supported throughout their two-year war against the democratically elected Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi.
Reuters noted that the United States has reported a significant increase in suspicious maritime activity originating from the Islamic Republic. Much of this activity has proven difficult to track, however, as a result of the carefully designed procedures that Iran has put into place following the previous seizure and deflection of weapons shipments that were bound directly to Yemen from Iran. The new procedures rely on an indirect route for the large weapons caches, taking them near the northern end of the Persian Gulf and frequently into Kuwaiti territorial waters, before portioning the shipments out into small deliveries, to be taken into Yemen via fishing boats and other small vessels that can more easily avoid inspection and pass through an international blockade of the Yemeni warzone.
In a further bit to avoid international scrutiny, these shipments tend to originate from smaller Iranian ports, which are less closely monitored by the international community. The Reuters report suggests that this has essentially become standard operating procedure for illicit activities being carried out in the waters around Iran. And this report is in keeping with previous disclosures by the Iranian opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which learned from its intelligence network inside the Islamic Republic that the IRGC has taken control of the vast majority of the smaller docks throughout the country, where the hardline paramilitary avoids serious oversight even by its own government.
This speaks to the escalating domestic power of the IRGC, which has a hand in security operations at home as well as paramilitary operations and terrorist support activities abroad. One of the sources interviewed for the Reuters piece pointedly asserted that “no activity goes ahead in the Gulf without the IRGC being involved.” The official went on to point out that the smuggling activities in question involve “a huge amount of money,” implying that this is a further factor in putting them well within the purview of the IRGC.
Other recent disclosures by the NCRI include the release of an in-depth document detailing the emergence of a “financial empire” centered around the IRGC. The NCRI and other staunch critics of the Islamic Republic maintain that the IRGC controls the majority of the country’s gross domestic priority, some of it explicitly and some of it through a series of front companies and independent affiliates in the Iranian business world.
This in turn highlights part of the concern that underlies criticisms being levied against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal by US President Donald Trump and various members of the US Congress, as well as the NCRI and other advocates for assertive international strategies potentially leading to regime change in Tehran. The economic status of the IRGC suggests that it is difficult for Western businesses to enter into business agreements with the Islamic Republic without a serious risk of financing the hardline paramilitary organization. Furthermore, the Reuters report stands among a growing body of evidence pointing to the kinds of activities that could be indirectly financed by Western capital under those circumstances.
Exacerbating Western Concerns
The US government is currently in the midst of efforts to diminish that risk, although doing so may court the resentment of European allies whose efforts to expand trade ties with the Islamic Republic may be affected. The US House of Representatives recently passed legislation called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which, among other things, expands all terrorism-related sanctions to the entirety of the IRGC, thereby effectively blacklisting it from doing business with firms that also do business with the United States. The bill is expected to pass the Senate easily before Congress goes on recess in the middle of the month.
But it remains to be seen what other measures might be undertaken by the US government to confront the Iranian regime over arms smuggling, ballistic missile tests, or any number of other frequently criticized activities. The sanctions bill comes at a time when the White House is reportedly engaged in a comprehensive review of its Iran policy, following President Trump’s begrudging certification of Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Trump’s foreign policy team evidently convinced him to avoid singlehandedly cancelling the agreement under current circumstances. The president’s certification is due every 90 days, in absence of which suspended congressional sanctions will be re-implemented. Trump has indicated that he does not believe Iran to be in full compliance and that he would have preferred to trigger the sanctions at the first opportunity. But the International Atomic Energy Agency has dismissed Iranian violations as very minor, meaning that the immediate failure of the agreement could be blamed on the US unless international narratives change.
Notably, the newly disclosed smuggling activity could contribute to the change in these narratives by giving the Trump administration more fuel with which to argue that Iran is defying its obligations. This argument has already gained significant traction from Iranian ballistic missile tests, and the arms smuggling could serve the same role. Certification of Iran’s compliance depends not only upon the regime’s adherence to the nuclear deal itself but also its adherence to associated agreements that were implemented at the time of the JCPOA’s implementation. One of these, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on ballistic missiles and other nuclear-capable weapons, and to avoid shipping arms without the expressed consent of the Security Council.
The IRGC has carried out several high-profile ballistic missile tests since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. The international community has also been broadly aware of the IRGC’s arms smuggling activity, but the Reuters report confirms that this is still ongoing and that it may even be expanding. At the same time, other recent reports have called attention to the possible connection between that expansion and the recent advancements in North Korean ballistic missile technology, which has reportedly expanded the rogue state’s range to as far as Chicago.
Iranian-North Korean collaboration has been observed in both the fields of missiles and nuclear research throughout the years, and there are various indications that this collaboration continues to the present day. UPI highlighted that relationship on Tuesday in a report on the planned trip by a high-ranking North Korean official, Kim Yong Nam, to the Islamic Republic. The visit will coincide with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration for a second term, but will also last for several additional days, during which he and his Iranian counterparts are expected to discuss a range of issues including possible joint responses to the Countering America’s Adversaries Act, which targets North Korea and Russia as well as Iran.
Iran has already begun its own responses to the emerging sanctions, as explained in another Reuters report that was published on Tuesday. That report notes that for the first time since the agreement went into effect, the Islamic Republic is issuing a formal complaint with a commission set up to mediate disputes over the JCPOA. The complaint alleges that the US sanctions – not the Iranian activities that brought them about – constitute a violation of the nuclear agreement. If the relevant commission does not resolve this dispute, it could be taken to the Security Council, in which both the US and Russia, a close Iranian ally, hold veto power.
But while the formal dispute process takes shape, Iran is reportedly also planning its own retaliatory measures. This was made evident as soon as the House voted on the US sanctions bill, when the Iranian parliament quickly voted to expand the disputed ballistic missile program and expand funding for the IRGC’s overseas operations. Furthermore, the Reuters report indicated that Iranian media had vaguely referenced further measures against the US, adding that President Rouhani would soon announce them to the relevant government ministries.
Whatever the specific nature of these measures, they will surely constitute very public defiance of American criticisms, and they may strive to directly provoke the US, either singly or with the help of fellow US adversaries like North Korea. The IRGC has unilaterally undertaken such direct provocations at various times since the conclusion of the nuclear deal, as when it has sent fast-attack boats into close proximity with US Navy vessels transiting the Persian Gulf. Last week it was reported that a new incident of this sort had prompted warning shots form an American ship for the first time since January.
The naval forces of the IRGC technically operate independently of the regular Iranian military. But the latter has seemingly supported IRGC-led missions from time to time. While the IRGC has jurisdiction over the Persian Gulf, the Iranian Navy is responsible for military operations in other waterways, including those that small smuggling vessels would need to pass through on their way from IRGC routes to their final destinations in Yemen. And on Tuesday, the Islamic Republic News Agency published a report boasting that the 47th strategic flotilla of the Iranian Navy had docked at Salalah, Oman, the largest port belonging to Yemen’s neighbor to the northeast.
The report included boastful comments from the flotilla’s captain regarding hundreds of intercepts it had allegedly carried out. In context with the IRGC disclosures and the overall increase in Iran-US tensions, such reports can easily be viewed as efforts to bolster the perception of Iranian strength in the region, and specifically Iranian strength in the face of international enforcement of the Yemen blockade and Security Council Resolution 2231.