There’s a discernible logic to what Iran is doing funding Mexican drug traffickers to bomb a US restaurant and kill the Saudi ambassador, and whoever else might be eating there. Three elements have come together in a dangerous cocktail of terrorism, international rivalry and criminality, and the threat is serious.
Firstly Iran is under significant local and international pressure at present. Iran’s leadership sees the Arab Spring as a mortal threat to it, as empowering people means giving real power to them, which is not how the theocratic system works in Iran.
In addition that Arab Spring has severely weakened the Iranian axis in the Middle East and Gulf. That axis embraces Iran itself, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah and sits atop an uncomfortable Sunni (the majority) and Shia (Iran, the leaders in Syria, and Hezbollah) Muslim divide. The Iranian connection with Syria is proving a major embarrassment, particularly with the majority Sunni community who are oppressed there; Iran is a Shia power and there is no love lost between it and Syrian Sunnis. Hamas, a Sunni movement, is currently distancing itself from Iran, and drawing closer to Turkey, Egypt and Qatar. Hezbollah, a Shia group, needs to stay clear of closer entanglements with Iran, as a considerable element of its support is from the Sunni community in Lebanon and elsewhere.
At the same time there is now open conflict in Iran between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian president Ahmadinejad. Although the Supreme Leader has in theory almost supreme powers, there is what may be an existential power struggle between them at present. This is a reflection of a major power struggle on the future of the position of the Supreme Leader in Iran.
The history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is very clear. When problems / pressures arise, distract the population by attacking the Greater Satan (the US) and the Lesser Satan (Israel). The current plot was targeted initially at the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US and subsequently at the Israeli embassy.
This is typical Iranian behaviour. The only possibly unexpected feature is the attempt to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador. But that fits in with recent comments from Saudi Arabia that it was seriously concerned about Iran. At the September 2011 conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Geneva, a major presentation by a Saudi Arabian prince signalled a significant change in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, a former Saudi ambassador to the US and the UK, who has been at the centre of much of diplomatic efforts by Saudi Arabia over the years, was extraordinarily blunt. He stated plainly that Iran and Saudi Arabia were in “conflict”. He also criticised Iran’s provocative “cat and mouse game” with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, subsequently saying in response to questions that “Iran intends to have nuclear weapons.”
He told a story about a Gulf Minister who raised his concerns about a possible Chernobyl mark 2 fallout from a nuclear accident or incident in an Iranian nuclear facility with Iran’s president. The response from Ahmadinejad was not reassuring-“We will not use Russian technology, we will use Iranian technology”. The former Saudi Arabian ambassador made much of this – – – fallout from a nuclear accident in Iran could hit its Gulf neighbours very badly and with the normal prevailing winds could potentially impact very little on Iran itself.
A third element in the mix, is the evolving relationships between criminal and terror networks, particularly when these networks are enabled or supported by “rogue” governments. Recently published research1 describes a major developing threat from the intersection of criminal and terror networks, particularly the FARC the narco -terrorist group who are now the biggest producers of cocaine in the world, much of which is distributed through Mexican drug cartels, identified by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as part of this latest plot.
Shadow facilitators understand how to exploit the seams in the international legal, financial, and economic structures and work with terrorist and criminal organisations linking those organisations together. These terrorist/criminal organisations now use the same pipelines, and the same illicit structures, and exploit the same state weaknesses. Of the 43 foreign terrorist organisations listed by the US Department of State, the DEA states that 19 have clearly established ties to drug-trafficking organisations, and many more are suspected of having such ties. This mixture of enemies and competitors working through a common facilitator or in loose alliance for mutual benefit is a pattern that is becoming common, and one that significantly complicates the ability of law enforcement and intelligence operatives to combat.
Douglas Farah (in Terrorist-Criminal Pipelines and Criminalised States: Emerging Alliances, Prism, June 2011) gives one example of these emerging alliances: ” Colombian and US officials, after a two-year investigation, dismantled a drug-trafficking organisation that stretched from Colombia to Panama, Mexico, the US, Europe and the Middle East. Most of the drugs originated with the FARC in Colombia, and some of the proceeds were traced to a Lebanese expatriate network to fund Hezbollah, a radical Shi’ite Muslim terrorist organisation that enjoys the state sponsorship of Iran and Syria.” The investigation began in 2008 and is ongoing.
My recent research into how these developing relationships and networks operate, suggests that Iran indirectly using Mexican, or other such, drug networks to carry out an operation against Saudi Arabian interests, on the territory of the Greater Satan (USA) with plausible deniability, is only too credible. Unfortunately we can expect more of this type of plot in future, frequently carried out with absolutely no compunction in killing civilian men women and children indiscriminately, by the members of the illegal drug networks who have displayed utter ruthlessness in many of their actions in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and many other states in Central and Latin America and Africa.
Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, warned of some of this development in 2008, particularly in Guinea-Bisssu, Guinea, and Sierra Leone: “Drug money is perverting the weaker economies of the region… The influence that this buys is rotting fragile states… traffickers are buying favours and protection from candidates in elections.”
Ireland is not immune from these developments.
1 International Crisis Group (Violence and Politics in Venezuela, Latin America Report number 38), The International Institute for Strategic Studies (the FARC files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of ‘Raul Reyes’) and the National Defence University in the US (in Prism, June 2011),