Iran’s Cartel Strategy

On October 11, 2011, Iranian nationals Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri were indicted by the Southern District Court of New York for plotting to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, by bombing a Washington D.C. restaurant.  The “Saudi Ambassador Plot,” which was initially disregarded by official Washington, was the first instance (that we know of) of Iranian use of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) to attack targets in the United States.

That the Iranian security apparatus would stage such an attack in the nation’s capital in which scores of Americans would have been killed or wounded, and that they would attempt to use a TCO to make the hit, sounds audacious and irrational – like something out of a movie that ends very poorly for Iran.  But it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with both the scope of Iran’s penetration of the Western hemisphere and its association with TCOs at every level. Understanding both the nature of this new combination, andAmerican weakness in dealing with it, requires some knowledge of TCOs, the security apparatus of the Iranian state, and their links.

First, crime.  Since before the end of the Cold War, a “perfect storm” of technological, cultural and social changes around the globe dramatically altered the structure of the post-WWII state system.  Global connectivity, waves of migration and huge caches of arms released by the fall of the Soviet Union all combined to make borders porous and arms available to rootless – and often young – populations.  These factors, along with the information and communication technology revolution, enhanced the ability of criminal cartels and syndicates to undermine the rule of law not only in weaker states, but in traditionally stronger ones as well.  The governments of some states actually embraced illegal trade for their own purposes– either to make money, to use illegal means to undermine rivals, or both.  The result has been the growth of the “black” economy that some analysts project may amount to as much as a fifth of global GDP.  The result is startling.  As Moises Niam says in his pathbreaking 2005 book Illicit:

Ultimately, it is the fabric of society that is at stake.  Global illicit trade is sinking entire industries while boosting others, ravaging countries and sparking booms, making and breaking political careers, destabilizing some countries while propping up others…International terrorism, the spread of horrific weapons, the empowerment of “rogue regimes.” The flare-up and persistence of regional wars and ethnic violence, the thread of environmental depredation, the stability of the world financial system, the fierce pressures and aspirations of international migration – all of these and more find their outlet, their manifestation and often their sustenance in global illicit trade.

In the Western hemisphere, traffic in illegal drugs to feed drug markets principally (but not exclusively) in the United States has led to the rise of powerful drug trafficking rings commonly called “cartels,” first in Colombia, but now also in Mexico.  The Mexican TCOs, allied with cocaine producers in the Colombian jungles, have extensive distribution networks throughout Central America, the Caribbean and the United States.  They provide “retail” distribution to gangs like MS13, the 18th Street Gang or the Crips and Bloods in every major American city and many mid-size and small ones.  Despite strenuous efforts by the Mexican government, among others, the cartels are conducting what amounts to a successful insurgency in Mexico and Central America, weakening and in some cases supplanting local governments with campaigns of corruption and unrestrained brutality and violence.

The cartels, though, are not the only actors in the hemisphere’s drug trade.  Under the late Hugo Chavez, the government of Venezuela supported Colombian cocaine producers, while also opening the country to Iranian influence.  Chavez’ Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which included states like Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, has forged close military ties with Iran.  In 2006, Iranian advisors of the Iranian Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) were embedded in the Venezuelan army.  Along with senior members of the Venezuelan government, the IRGC is involved in the illicit narcotics trade as well, which is consistent with its other function as a quasi-business enterprise.  In support of Iranian foreign policy, the IRGC acts as a flexible, ideologically committed military force that also manages a huge, semi-legitimate business empire in Iran.  The smaller Iranian Quds Force, which has fewer business associations, acts as a special operations force and a covert arm of Iran’s government.

Hostility toward the United States is fundamental to the ideological outlook of Iran’s ruling theocracy, which considers itself at war with the U.S. Employment of the IRGC and Quds Force against America, whether in Iraq (where members of the Quds Force were captured by American troops) or in the Western Hemisphere, where the IRCG and Quds Force participate in anti-US training of local forces and in an illicit drug trade that weakens the United States at home. That Iran has relationships with TCOs with deep ties inside the United States is a fact; the question is what, if anything, the Iranians intend to do with this capability.

To understand Iranian covert operations, it’s necessary to examine the motivations and methods of operation of both the IRGC and Quds Force.  Both consider themselves the shock troops of the Iranian revolution, both are deeply embedded in the structure of the government of Iran, and both have at various times carried out operations against the United States, the great majority of which have taken place in the Persian Gulf after U.S. and Iranian navies battled in the Tanker War of 1984-89.  Both organizations stress freedom of action at the lowest levels, and reward initiative even if the actions result in defeat.  One Department of Defense study, Iranian Operations in the Western Hemisphere, reports – in draft form – that:

In comparison to the U.S. and other Western powers, where national and regional strategies are centrally developed and instruments of power are tightly controlled by policy constraints, the leadership of the Islamic Republic appears to encourage and embrace the initiative of lower-level operatives and proxy forces even when their actions may run counter to established policy. When spontaneous operations go well, the leadership embraces the action; when they fail, there does not appear to be a significant level of condemnation. The result is strategic behavior that is sometimes driven by lower-level initiatives, even though Iran has shown itself capable of strategic planning; e.g., its policy toward the emerging government of Iraq and its support for the survival of the Assad regime.

In particular, freedom of action at the lowest levels is key to understanding the origin of the plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador. A Quds official was approached by an intermediary who reported that the Zetas, possibly the most violent of the Mexican cartels, were willing – for a price – to plant a bomb in a Washington restaurant that would assassinate the Saudi ambassador at lunch. According to open testimony by U.S. officials, the plan was approved at “the highest levels” of the Iranian government, a cash payment of one million dollars was agreed on and the operative contacted his Zeta counterpart, who fortuitously turned out to be an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Reports of Iranian activity in South and Central America continue to roll in, along with Hezbollah’s hefty fund-raising and training activities in South America associated with the Lebanese Diaspora.  Thus far, there has been no sign in Venezuela of decreased activity with Chavez’ death, and indeed the new regime in Venezuela may need Iranian support more than ever, along with Cuban assistance and help from other ALBA countries.

Conduct of covert operations in the Western Hemisphere is a stretch for the IRGC-QF, which has traditionally operated closer to home.  But the Saudi plot shows that the Iranians still encourage lower-level initiative, and believe that it is legitimate to pay  TCOs to strike the U.S..  Ominously, TCO operations continue virtually unabated in Mexico, just as the criminal gangs in the U.S. who act as retailers are spreading their operations and even conducting “mergers” of gang structures.

The coordinated U.S. response to the growing presence of Iranian agents and the IRGC-QF in Central and South America has been tepid at best.  There has been no public reaction to the Saudi Ambassador Plot, in part because the operation was so bungled that it was not taken seriously, despite the fact that the effort had high-level Iranian support.  One senior State Department official, when confronted with the facts, told me, “I can’t understand why they would do this.”  Despite some successes and dedicated work by U.S. agents on the ground, multiple layers of U.S. commands and bureaucracies impede efforts to catch highly mobile and adaptive gang members or to break up the TCOs.  John Sullivan of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department wrote to me:

As the cartels penetrate the US and Canada, I fear we are protecting rice bowls rather than the commonwealth.  Gang-cartel crime in Chicago, Texas, and yes, LA is on the rise as the cartels inter-penetrate our criminal infrastructure.  

Surely, a tailored response to each nation is required, but the effective unit of analysis for a network is not individual nodes, but the network itself!  Some “area scholars” have asserted that MS-13 (for example) is different in the US (read LA) than in Central America, yet we have empirical (yet not public) evidence that that is not the case.  The network coordinates across our seams!

So despite the presence of the armed forces of a hostile state (Iran) to our south, and clear evidence that those forces will use TCOs to attack targets inside the United States, the possibility of concerted action against the cartels and, by implication, the IRGC-QF, remains elusive.  It’s an unfortunate tendency of the United States to wait until the “morning after” an attack has occurred before reacting to it.  In the case of the IRGC-QF and TCO alliance, we have seen this one coming for quite a while.  We can hope that the next attempt to kill Americans within our borders is likewise stopped by the fortunate presence of a DEA undercover agent. But this author would sleep better if skill and forethought were guiding U.S. policy on the Iranian involvement in  the Western hemisphere – rather than mere luck.


Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.