Two Iranian-affiliated squads were detained on June 16 in Istanbul by Turkish security police. On July 22, another unit was apprehended. According to reports, one of the squads planned to assassinate Yosef Levi-Sfari, the former Israeli consul in Istanbul, and the other two were planning to attack Israeli tourists.
According to reports, the Mossad—Israel’s intelligence agency, which maintains working contacts with its Turkish counterparts, gave specific intelligence regarding the Iranian operatives to Turkish security services.
According to Turkish media reports, Iranian intelligence used an “Iranian mafia” group whose motive is profit rather than ideology. The Turkish inquiry discovered that one of the squad members visited Iran four times in two months and met with the boss of one of the Iranian organized crime groups on his last trip, only four days before his arrest.
This is not the first time the Iranian administration has used local criminal elements to its advantage. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) routinely employs gangs, drug cartels and international criminal groups to carry out terrorist activities across the globe.
This pattern of behavior is directly related to the phenomenon of narco-terrorism, which refers to the use of organized crime—including drug trafficking, smuggling, counterfeiting, human trafficking, money laundering and gambling—to fund terror activities.
For many years, the IRGC has maintained extensive contacts with top figures in Afghan drug trafficking organizations and other international criminal syndicates, as part of a network for distributing narcotics shipments to Western countries. The drug money is subsequently used to fund terrorist operations and supply weapons to terrorist organizations.
For example, the U.S. Treasury in 2012 designated Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, head of the IRGC Quds Force in Zahedan on the Iran-Afghanistan border, as a drug lord responsible for the export of heroin to the United States and Europe. A similar suspicion arose in the case of Lt. Col. Abdullah Araqi, former commander of the Tehran district and deputy commander of the IRGC’s ground force, who was suspected of having connections with international criminal organizations in Albania, Bulgaria and Romania dealing with the distribution of Afghan heroin to Western countries.
Iran also employs Hezbollah, its largest Shi’ite proxy, in extensive international criminal activity. Hezbollah’s activities are carried out mainly in South America, utilizing local Lebanese populations to establish a network of straw companies for black-market transactions and money laundering. The funds generated are used to enhance Hezbollah’s military, among other things. Furthermore, such “black funds” helped Iran withstand the heavy sanctions imposed on it. As part of this operation, Hezbollah has close ties with Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers.
This pattern of deploying international criminal elements, whether with ties to Iran or acting as mercenaries, necessitates intelligence preparedness on the side of Israel, the United States and Western European countries to track and monitor these activities. Furthermore, it provides the opportunity for Israel to expose its methods of operation.
Iran’s use of transnational organized crime
Iran’s use of organized crime is not new. The links between Iran’s intelligence agencies and transnational crime organizations have been extensively documented. For example, in 2011, an Iranian spy (who was later convicted) attempted to recruit a member of the Mexican drug cartel “Los Zetas” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington via an attack at the Cafe Milano restaurant in Georgetown. The Iranian agent also intended to attack the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., as well as the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina.
Iran has recently used organized crime to carry out attacks against its adversaries, including assassinations and terrorist attacks. Iran’s criminal behavior originates partly from the diminished ability of its proxies to operate in the international arena. Furthermore, Iran is generally interested in minimizing the possibility of retaliation against it.
According to reports, in 2022 alone, the Mossad prevented Iranian efforts to assassinate Israel’s former consul in Turkey, an American general in Germany and the French journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. Mansour Rasouli, the leader of the failed murder attempt in Turkey, was interrogated by Mossad agents on Iranian soil, according to a video released to the media hours after the incident. According to reports, Rasouli, an Iranian Kurd, is a member of a criminal organization that works for the IRGC.
Additionally, according to the report Rasouli’s gang is responsible for laundering money for the IRGC, in exchange for permission to export and import illicit goods. Bahman Atami, the group’s leader, supports the Iranian government. The Atami and Rasouli families reportedly work together with the IRGC to smuggle drugs into Turkey and Iraq. Rasouli is a member of a narcotics cartel hired by the IRGC to carry out assassination operations against targets outside Iran.
The Zindashti cartel, led by Naji-Sharifi Zindashti, an Iranian citizen of Kurdish heritage, is responsible for some of Iran’s narco-terrorism activity in Turkey. Zindashti, born in the northern Iranian city of Urmia, spent several years in Turkey, where he had complete freedom of movement. He developed tight ties with advisers and colleagues of Turkey’s ruling AK Party and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But over the years, the Turkish media reported that Zindashti grew close to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish opposition leader living in the United States whose group is being persecuted by the government.
This reconciliation with Gulen is probably what prompted Turkish officials to file criminal charges against Zindashti. Several members of the Zindashti cartel, including Zindashti himself, were detained in Turkey in 2018 on suspicion of assassinating Saeed Karimian, the founder and head of Gem TV, an Iranian opposition channel broadcasting in Turkey. After six months, Zindashti and the other detainees were released. According to Turkish media, the disclosures resulted from bribery and pressure by associates and advisers to Erdoğan, ostensibly to boost relations with Iran.
Zindashti’s criminal group has also been accused of carrying out the assassination of Masoud Mulawi in Istanbul in November 2019 on the orders of Iranian intelligence officers. Mullawi previously worked in the Iranian Ministry of Defense in the field of cyber security and, since fleeing the country in 2018, had emerged as a vocal opponent of the Iranian regime. Abdulvahap Koçak, the activist who murdered Mullawi, has ties to the Zindashti mafia.
In December 2021, Turkish police arrested around 11 members of the Zindashti cartel on suspicion of collaborating with Iranian intelligence in the kidnapping of Habib Chaab, an Iranian regime opponent and the leader of the Ahwaz Liberation Organization in Sweden. Ahwaz, in western Iran, is home to an Arab minority community that seeks independence or autonomy.
Iran also employs the Rigabadi cartel, which is based in Romania. Hussein Karimi Rigabadi (a relative of Zindashti) controls the cartel, which operates a worldwide drug conglomerate that sells heroin in the Middle East, Western Europe and North America. The cartel has smuggled heroin worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran and Turkey over the last several decades.
According to the London-based Iran International media outlet, the Rigabadi cartel was responsible for the death of top Iranian judge Gholamreza Mansouri in Bucharest, Romania, in June 2022. In 2019, Mansouri departed Iran. According to media accounts, Zindashti was also implicated in the assassination, allegedly giving the order to kill Mansouri.
The purpose of Iran’s involvement in organized crime
The use of organized crime provides Iran with plausible deniability, and Tehran also profits in several other ways.
First, it makes money, especially since Iran is subject to economic sanctions that force the regime to look to illicit revenue streams. These payments are also sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and Ansar Allah (Houthis) in Yemen, among others.
Second, Iran’s drug trade and distribution efforts aim to poison the populations of Western countries, mainly the United States, where most of the trade is focused. According to Iran, which officially opposes drug use for religious reasons, drug distribution in these countries will damage their society, create economic hardship, increase welfare costs and diminish national resilience.
Thirdly, Iran uses international crime to support terrorism and even buy material for its nuclear program.
Using criminal elements to achieve military and political goals also has its drawbacks. For instance, Iran’s operatives are frequently inexperienced and even incompetent with regard to carrying out sophisticated operational tasks such as covert intelligence operations. Iran’s objectives are not achieved in the majority of incidents of reported drug terrorism, which result in arrests and thwarted plots. Additionally, criminals are disloyal and can easily be bought.
Recommendations to counter Iran’s criminal enterprise
Iran’s organized criminal activities have the potential to harm the sovereignty and society of the countries in which they occur. Furthermore, by employing organized crime, Iran inhibits the ability of Jerusalem and other parties to respond to its indirect aggression by blurring the distinctions between criminal, terrorist and military activity. For example, Israel cannot act openly and formally in the territory of certain countries with which it has complex and delicate relations (like Turkey, for example). Such behavior risks escalating and hurting ties with these countries.
Except on exceptional occasions, Western countries and security agencies have avoided discussing Iran’s involvement in international crime and drug trafficking. Even among Israel’s and America’s intelligence communities, there was opposition to dealing with Hezbollah’s narco-terrorism, which was controlled and sponsored by Iran. There were no agreements or operational measures, even when the topic was raised.
As a result, it is crucial to institutionalize and strengthen global and regional collaboration to counter Iran’s use of organized crime. The cooperation of the Israel Police and the Mossad with Interpol and the DEA should be strengthened, including combined training and exercises, regular meetings, intelligence sharing, and, of course, stopping terrorist attacks against Israelis and Westerners. In this context, Israel should collaborate with the European Union and the United States to promote the formation of a task force to tackle the narco-terrorist phenomena.
Between 2006 and 2015, such collaboration existed as part of Project Cassandra, which aimed to stop Hezbollah’s international criminal activity, mainly drug trafficking and money laundering. A task force was formed as part of a project that included Israeli police and intelligence agents, as well as members of the Mossad’s Harpoon unit, which was disbanded in 2016, with parts of it being transferred to the National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing at Israel’s Defense Ministry.
However, due to the U.S. administration’s aim to secure a nuclear agreement with Iran, the project lost influence as the funding, staff and support dropped during the Obama era. The project was halted entirely when a nuclear deal was reached with Iran in 2015. Since the Obama administration ended Project Cassandra, the DEA has almost entirely stopped dealing with Iran’s narco-terrorism. Furthermore, even though it is a strategic concern, it was probably barely discussed by the West or the Americans during the nuclear discussions with Iran, even though it poses a considerable threat.
Such global cooperation will be complicated now, as the Biden administration follows the Obama administration’s course of action to get Iran back into the nuclear accord, in exchange for several significant concessions. In this political climate, Israel will find it difficult to persuade the U.S. administration to undertake coordinated and large-scale operations against criminal organizations affiliated with Iran—a move that could endanger discussions for a renewed agreement. As a result, it is conceivable to offer the Americans a form of compromise in which Israel and the United States will focus on prosecuting Hezbollah members involved in narco-terrorism while turning a blind eye to such activity affiliated with Iran.
In this context, Israeli and U.S. authorities should discuss the matter internally, with Israel requesting that the United States monitor Iranian criminal elements and designate Iranian operatives and associates.
Minimal cooperation with the United States and the European Union must include raising public and political awareness of the link between Tehran and international organized crime as an initial step before engaging in enforcement activity. Thus, it is advisable for Israel to highlight Iran’s ongoing use of the Zindashti cartel, as was done previously concerning Hezbollah’s international criminal activities.
Furthermore, Israel should use the current normalization efforts with Turkey to strengthen intelligence and diplomatic collaboration to limit and undermine the Zindashti cartel in Turkey. Both countries are interested in averting terrorist acts that might harm tourism in Turkey. Since Turkey and Iran have solid diplomatic ties, it may be possible to agree with Turkey about the deportation of cartel members instead of arresting them on Turkish soil.
Israel must also conduct covert intelligence operations to dissuade and eliminate elements of the narco-terrorist movement collaborating with the IRGC and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. Since Israel’s relationships with different countries are so delicate, it isn’t easy to carry out these acts everywhere. Israel should carefully consider which countries these operations can be carried out while leaving a small footprint to avoid embarrassing these countries.
Dr. Omer Dostri is a specialist in strategy and Israeli national security.
This is an edited version of an article originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.