Small Wars Journal

Dismantling Iran’s Illicit Networks

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 1:40am

Dismantling Iran’s Illicit Networks

Douglas A. Livermore

To date, the United States (US) and its allies have failed to fully integrate their capabilities to counter Iran’s actions which threaten global stability.  The US government recently imposed strict sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), citing its continued support to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the aid it continues to provide to Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various other violent factions around the world.  Through its proxies, the Iranian government has contributed to the deaths of millions of innocent people by spreading instability and chaos far and wide.  The increased US sanctions also targeted commercial entities that provide critical support to the IRGC and facilitate that group’s destabilizing activities.[i]  However, the Iranian government also engages in a variety of highly illicit activities intended to raise funds and facilitate operations outside of legal commercial markets.  Considerable evidence exists of Iran’s deep involvement in human trafficking, illegal arms proliferation, and the international drug trade.  To appreciably undermine the Iranian government’s ability to fund and conduct its activities, it is imperative that the US design and execute a comprehensive strategy to dismantle all Iran’s illicit networks wherever they operate.  This strategy would need to better integrate both US and international intelligence, law enforcement, financial regulatory mechanisms, and diplomatic efforts.

Human trafficking. According to the US Department of State (DoS), the Iranian government relies heavily on human trafficking to both facilitate and fund its destabilizing activities around the world.  Iran generates revenue from prostitution and recruits ranks of disposable fighters to wage its proxy wars abroad.  Given the strong international consensus on the illegality of human trafficking, the US should pursue a campaign to dismantle Iran’s human trafficking networks.  In its 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the DoS described Iran as “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor”.[ii]  While the Iranian government officially forbids, and imposes severe punishments for, prostitution--particularly to the victims of such trafficking--there is ample evidence that government officials are heavily involved in the trade.[iii]  The 2017 TIP report accused the IRGC of forcing Afghan and other foreign nationals living in Iran, as well as so-called “child soldiers,” to fight in Iraq and Syria.[iv]  Despite the near-universal condemnation of human trafficking, Iran does not fully comply with UN protocols regarding criminalization and reporting of such trafficking, and continues to enjoy financial and operational advantages afforded by its involvement in human trafficking.[v]

Arms proliferation. To support its terrorist proxies, the Iranian government illegally supplies these groups with advanced weapons and other equipment delivered through its extensive smuggling networks. The most current example involves Yemen, where the Iranian government is allegedly ignoring all international sanctions on arms shipments by providing the Houthi rebels with advanced ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and even remote-controlled boats laden with explosives.  The rebels have used these illicit arms to good effect against Yemen’s recognized government and its international supporters, such as when drone boats successfully attacked a Saudi warship in the Red Sea in January of 2017.[vi]   For decades, the Iranian government has used a variety of illicit arms networks to move weapons and other supplies to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups that threaten Israel, a key US ally.[vii]

Drug trade. The Iranian government is also heavily involved in the international drug trade and generates hundreds of millions of dollars every year through these illicit activities. Drug smuggling networks also support the destabilizing activities of both Iran and its terrorist beneficiaries around the world. For instance, Iran’s drug trade magnifies the negative impact that narcotics have on the stability and productivity of Western societies.[viii]  Much like with prostitution, the Iranian government officially prohibits drug use domestically, but is more than willing to benefit financially and operationally from involvement in the international drug trade.  However, deepening involvement of the Iranian government in drug smuggling has resulted in unintended consequences, such as the skyrocketing rate of heroin addiction among the Iranian population.[ix]  While the line between drug smuggling for personal gain and Iranian national interests is often blurred, what is crystal clear is the benefits that the Iranian regime derives from involvement in illicit activities.      

Much of the Iranian government’s involvement in the drug trade is actually conducted indirectly through terrorist proxies, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah.[x]  For instance, drug cartels sell their product to Hezbollah operatives in South America, who then transport the drugs on board Iran Air flights to the Middle East and Europe.[xi]  The Iranian Ministry of Roads and Urban Development owns the controlling majority of Iran Air.[xii]  In other cases, Iran is more directly involved in the drug trade, as in the case of IRGC General Gholamreza Baghbani, whom the US Department of the Treasury designated as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker in 2012 for his involvement in shipping Afghan opiates through Iran and to the West.  In return, Baghbani used Afghan drug traffickers to smuggle weapons and other equipment provided by the Iranian government to the Taliban, who have waged a brutal terrorist campaign against the Afghan government and its US-backers.[xiii]  If the US ever truly wants to undermine Iran’s ability to fund and support destabilizing activities, it must pursue a comprehensive strategy to dismantle all Iran’s illicit criminal networks.

The campaign that the US and its allies must implement should be globally integrated and involve worldwide cooperation across intelligence, law enforcement, regulatory, and diplomatic lines of effort.  Because Iran uses many of the same networks for arms shipments, human trafficking, and the drug trade, a comprehensive approach to degrade these networks would severely limit Iran’s ability to generate revenue and operationally support its ongoing destabilizing activities.  Similar to the way the international community has largely unified against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the effort to dismantle Iran’s illicit networks must be multilateral and comprehensive.  The scale of intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic cooperation created to defeat ISIS has been unprecedented.  And ISIS, for all its brutality, has been responsible for far fewer overall deaths than the Iranian government has caused through its widespread destabilizing activities and criminal networks.

Building from the existing sanctions leveled against the IRGC and other Iranian entities, the international community should aggressively attack the criminal infrastructure that underpins, funds, and facilitates Iran’s destabilizing activities around the world. Iran’s commercial entities, which spearhead a mix of illicit and legitimate interests, will be more difficult to attack in the short term. However, it will be far easier to reach global consensus about the importance of dismantling Iran’s purely criminal networks. Only when Iran’s illicit networks are sufficiently degraded will the full effect of the sanctions be felt by the regime.  Without a campaign to dismantle Iran’s illicit networks, the Iranian regime will still be able to fund and support its terrorist proxies and otherwise disrupt global peace.

End Notes

[i] “Treasury Designates the IRGC under Terrorism Authority and Targets IRGC and Military Supporters under Counter-Proliferation Authority,” U.S. Department of State, October 13, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017,

[ii] “2016 Trafficking in Persons Report – Iran,” U.S. Department of State, 2016, accessed October 22, 2017,

[iii] “U.S.: Iran officials involved in the human trafficking of women,” National Council of Resistance of Iran, July 29, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,

[iv] “2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – Iran,” U.S. Department of State, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,

[v] Zach Shubert, “Iran’s Dark Secret: Child Prostitution and Sex Slaves,” Huffington Post, accessed October 22, 2017,

[vi] “Yemen's Houthis attack Saudi ship, launch ballistic missile,” Reuters, January 30, 2017, accessed October 23, 2017,

[vii] Tom Porter, “Iran, Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah: How the Islamic Republic is Shoring Up Relations Between Israel's Enemies,” Newsweek, September 23, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,

[viii] “Iran’s elite Guard ‘runs global crime network pushing heroin to West’,” The Times, November 17, 2011, accessed October 22, 2017,

[ix] “Iran's drug problem: Addicts 'more than double' in six years,” BBC, June 25, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,

[x] Michael Jacobson and Matthew Levitt, “Tracking Narco-Terrorist Networks: The Money Trail,” Washington Institute, Volume 34:1 - Winter 2010, accessed October 22, 2017, 121-123,

[xi] Matthew Levitt, “Hizbullah narco-terrorism: A growing cross-border threat,” IHS Defense, Risk and Security Consulting, September 2012, accessed October 22, 2017, 41

[xii] “The Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Iranian Privatization Organization, accessed October 22, 2017,

[xiii] “Treasury Designates Iranian Qods Force General Overseeing Afghan Heroin Trafficking Through Iran,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 3, 2012, accessed October 22, 2017,


About the Author(s)

Doug Livermore works as a contracted operational advisor to ASD SO/LIC while continuing his military service as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. Previously, Doug served for a decade on active duty as first an Infantry officer and later a Special Forces officer. He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Military History from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Course. Doug is the National Director for External Communications for the Special Forces Association and the National Capital Region Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. He was also recently selected as a 2020-21 Fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.


This article is excellent.
A few commentators on the Israeli handling of lone wolf attacks notes that the USA needs a comprehensive program to go after the funds used to support terrorism. Using some of the same strategies proposed here.
The religious issue has in the past resulted in some restrictions to avoid the appearance of Islamophobia or result in radicalizing Islamic communities. However that approach was belied by Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon and over 100 lone wolf attacks by Muslims , that we are told to believe has nothing to do with Islam, the same way Americans are being told by authorities the tragedy in Texas in which more defenseless Christians worshiping in a church were shot dead, had nothing to do with religion. Wishful thinking has gotten us nowhere and probably made things worse.
Given the clarity with which this author states his informed opinion it is hard to understand why our liberal representatives believe they can "deal" with the Iranian Theocracy. Since 1979 it seems like we have to reset the clock every 4 to 8 years to move forward.
In the past 6 months there has been more freedom permitted to address the issues posed by Islam and criticism of Tehran. For instance we now have more proof that Iran has been more sympathetic towards Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the overt intent of Iran to establish a land bridge to the Med by exploiting the aggression of the Islamic State and the rebellion in Syria and even in Yemen. Its support of Hamas and HezbAllah and the Mahdi "army" the MB had been forming in the Sinai, in regions the Egyptian Army still dare not go without the rk of incurring heavy casualties.
A principle stumbling block seems to have been that we have been lead to believe the notion that Sunnis and Shiites are so fundamentally opposed on the issue of which is the correct interpretation of Islam after the Prophet they are unable to agree on anything. This no longer, if it ever did, holds as a divisive boundary between the militant ideologues of global Islamic supremacy.
A word of caution despite the fact the world came together to prosecute the war against the Islamic State we should also remember that the Russian and Iranian effort was aimed more directly at the Syrian rebels and its air attacks on the Islamic State largely restricted to hitting their oil tankards. One should ask if it was to cripple the Islamic States funding or because the Iranians and Russians believe its their oil.