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Militancy and criminality are Iran regime’s principal threats

It is bitterly ironic that a leadership rooting its legitimacy in quasi-religious principles governs one of the most corrupt nations in the world, deliberately infecting the entire Middle East with its criminality. 

The Islamic Republic’s brazen corruption is no secret, with the offspring of untouchable ayatollahs flaunting their million-dollar lifestyles. Shameless online videos from “The Rich Kids of Tehran” include debauched bikini-clad, alcohol-fueled pool parties, pet cheetahs and million-dollar racing cars. Little wonder there is anger among the Iranians who are toiling under sanctions imposed in response to their leaders’ bankrolling of overseas terrorism.

Corruption begins at the top. When an MP in 2016 sought to expose the massive theft of public funds (via 63 personal bank accounts) by judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, it was the MP who faced harassment by the police. Larijani’s brother, Ali Larijani, head of the Majlis, acknowledged this institutionalized criminality, commenting: “I have no hope that fighting against corruption works.”

Action against corruption has mostly been about score-settling. President Hassan Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereidoun is currently being pursued by hard-liners concealing their own skeletons inside gold-plated closets. “The power struggle is so tense that even fighting with corruption is designed to eliminate each other;” observed one analyst. Tycoon Babak Zanjani was sentenced to death for pocketing $2.8 billion from oil deals. However, he was merely a broker for powerful politicians who jettisoned him once he had served his purpose.

New bouts of sanctions simply prompt renewed bouts of illegal revenue-generating activities by super-rich ayatollahs, while citizens’ savings are wiped out by inflation and children die in hospitals through lack of affordable medicines. This includes making fortunes on currency manipulation, which further undermines an imploding economy. “They don’t feel the impact because their children live abroad and their salaries are astronomical,” commented one citizen.

The conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq similarly provide the context for an epidemic of criminality by Iran’s regional proxies. In addition to oil smuggling, and preying on citizens through abductions and extortion, Iraqi paramilitaries near Mosul recently erected scores of checkpoints for forcibly taxing impoverished locals. Militants are also aggressively asserting dominance of the lucrative post-conflict scrap metal market and other key sectors. 

Iraq’s kleptocracy is distinguished by Mafioso factions treating ministries as fiefdoms for shameless enrichment, leaching billions from the state budget. Muqtada Al-Sadr is nowadays portrayed as the savior who can rid Iraq of militancy and corruption. Yet, after 2005, Sadrist ministers converted their ministries into havens for gangsterism and graft: Under a Sadrist health minister, militants patrolled hospitals murdering Sunni patients, while ambulances became the preferred vehicle for death squads. When Sadrist control of the airport and customs failed to reap sufficient employment positions, 15 airport staff were gunned down as a “grisly act of job creation.” With government seats currently being divided between the Sadrists and pro-Iran militants, corruption is expected to spiral.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah pledges to focus on fighting corruption in the new Lebanese government. However, attention on this issue arose through dissention within Hezbollah’s own ranks, with Shiite demographics questioning why their sons were returning from Syria in coffins, while Hezbollah mobsters reaped fortunes from the Syria war economy. Tehran has coerced Bashar Assad to allow Iranian companies to dominate the reconstruction effort and rebuild the national army, offering copious opportunities for kickbacks. Projects for returnees have been monopolized by militant families, reengineering Syria’s demographics in Iran’s favor. Around the Lebanon-Syria border, Hezbollah has seized land for agricultural schemes and legal and illegal economic activities.

Lebanon boasted its biggest ever drugs bust last year, with impounded hashish filling an entire football field. Factories in Hezbollah strongholds pump out huge quantities of the drug Captagon for the Syrian market. A Hezbollah narcotics cartel under Ayman Juma moved “multi-ton loads” of cocaine into the US, while laundering $200 million per month in criminal proceeds. 

Hezbollah official Ali Zeaiter was designated by the US over the clandestine acquisition of military materials. He was also linked to a huge prostitution network exploiting Syrian women. Networks used for smuggling drugs and arms are equally suitable for transporting women and children for forced labor and sex trafficking. Venezuela has recently been exporting huge quantities of gold to Turkey in violation of a US ban, with fears that this gold is illegally destined for Iran. This mirrors a pre-2015 oil-for-gold scheme, in which Turkish banks enabled Tehran to evade sanctions and repatriate $13 billion in frozen funds. 

The blunt instrument of sanctions represents a gun pointed at the head of ordinary Iranians and could only be effective if Iran had humane leaders who cared about their citizens’ wellbeing, rather than relishing the opportunity to profit from epic-scale criminality. These paradoxical outcomes are a consequence of US President Donald Trump’s desire to be perceived as tough on Iran, while lacking a coherent and holistic containment strategy. Trump has not only failed to obtain international cooperation, but supposed European allies are actively sabotaging sanctions pressures in order to placate Tehran. 

Iran’s dominant position in the global narcotics trade was deliberately ignored by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama to seduce Tehran into signing the 2015 nuclear deal. Under Trump, Iran’s criminal empire gets a free ride through sheer incompetence. Rather than focusing on the sterile debate about whether Tehran is fulfilling its nuclear obligations, attention should be paid to this regime’s global criminality and domestic corruption; in addiction to militant activities in Arab states and terrorism around the world. 

This murderous and criminal regime gluttonously sucks the lifeblood from its own citizens and neighboring states. Only once the world stops treating the ayatollahs as rational politicians to be appeased and negotiated with in good faith — and instead confronts them as the gangsters and terrorists they are — can real steps be taken to counter this global menace.
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