Leaked cables reveal U.S. diplomats’ fears about Iran’s drug trafficking

Mike Riggs Contributor
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What Mexico is to the United States’ narcotic black market, Iran is quickly becoming to its neighbors, suggest State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks. American diplomats in both Kuwait and Azerbaijan are looking at Iran as the next large exporter of narcotics to Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other counties in the region.

“According to widespread rumor, many Iranians in Baku are involved full- or part-time in Iranian regime-related profit making, sanctions-busting, money laundering, and similar activities,” reads a March 2009 cable from the American embassy in Azerbaijan, the country on Iran’s northern border. “Some are also said to be significant actors in obtaining spare parts and equipment for the Revolutionary Guard, raising revenues and managing money for it and/or regime figures, or managing Iran-origin narcotics trafficking.”

The cable then goes on to describe a handful of alleged Iranians working for the Iranian government in Baku, including Sabir Shaheen, “a well known mafia-like figure from Iranian Azerbaijan who reportedly acts as a ‘liaison’ between the Iranian and Russian/Azerbaijani narcotics traffickers.”

Another cable from Baku, dated June 2009, claims that “Iran-origin heroin seizures (i.e., heroin derived from Afghani and Pakistani opium that entered Azerbaijan from Iran) in Azerbaijan nearly quadrupled during the first quarter of 2009, as compared to the first quarter of 2008.”

This is a dramatic increase not just over 2008, but also over 2006, the first year that the Government of Azerbaijan made such data available. According to the cable, Azerbaijani officials reported the discovery of only 20 kilograms of Iran-origin in Azerbaijan in 2006. That number increased to 59,000 kilos in 2009.

“Yemeni extremists are making money from the drug trade, moving narcotics into Saudi Arabia,” reads a cable from the Kuwait embassy dated February 2010. “The [Government of Kuwait] has been able to block some of the flow of these drugs from Saudi into Kuwait, but remains very concerned about this. Iran is involved, clearly, as a producer of drugs and a facilitator of transit along the Afghanistan-Iran-Somalia-Yemen pipeline. Now Iran is trying to expand its influence in Egypt, seeking to exploit poverty there and infiltrate the security services.”

Other agencies have taken notice of Azerbaijan’s new role as component in Iran’s narco-smuggling strategy. In its budget request for fiscal year 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration described the success of 2009’s “Operation All Inclusive,” a multi-agency, global interdiction effort. While OAI has been conducted annually since 2004, last year saw operations “[taking] place for the first time in Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.”

The founder of Wikileaks, Australian activist and hacker Julian Assange, has promised to release over 250,000 State Department cables over the next few months, a decision which has been criticized by both the White House and Congress.