Iran: Tehran-based Un Official Sees Increasing Threat

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Classified By: Pol M/C David D. Pearce for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)


¶1. (C/NF) An Italian UN official based in Tehran says Iran is
using all means at its disposal — from support for terrorist
groups to its own counter-narcotics campaign — to boost its
influence in the region. Accustomed to years of economic
sanctions and international isolation, key Iranian power
centers, like the Revolutionary Guard, profit from
unconventional sources of income, like smuggling, and
cultivate relationships with terrorist groups in a bid to
strengthen their hand in the Middle East power balance. End

Odd Turns in Iran’s Counter-Narcotics Effort

¶2. (C/NF) Following up on ref A, Political Minister Counselor
and PolOffs met with UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
Tehran-based Field Representative Roberto Arbitrio (strictly
protect), on June 27. Arbitrio reiterated much of the
information provided in reftel, stressing that, from his
experience and contacts, he felt the Iranian regime was
clearly headed in the wrong direction and that, even without
nuclear weapons, it posed a threat to regional stability.
Arbitrio believed Iran was using its role in combatting drug
trafficking, as well as its support for terrorist groups, and
Revolutionary Guard involvement in illicit smuggling
activities, to foment regional instability and increase its
leverage in the region.

¶3. (C/NF) He noted that for many years one of the few bright
spots about the Iranian regime had been its genuine
commitment to combat narcotics trafficking. Now, however,
the Iranian regime was even threatening to turn this in a
negative direction. Iran had recently sought UN support for
a proposed $500 million counternarcotics program, which
Arbitrio dismissed as completely unrealistic, given that the
entire worldwide budget of UNODC was only about $150 million.
He said UNODC ran a modest (about $23 million), but
effective program in Iran. Furthermore, Arbitrio said,
echoing ref A report, the Iranian proposal was riddled with
requests for dual-use items. What he found particularly
ominous was that the Iranian Director of Drug Control had
suggested that, if Iran’s proposal to get the needed
resources were to founder, then it might have to reconsider
the scope of its own efforts against the traffickers.

Nothing Good Happens If They Stand Down

¶4. (C/NF) Arbitrio saw significant implications if Iran stood
down on its counter-narcotics efforts. Less pressure on
drug trafficking could provide increased channels for illicit
funds to terrorists and Iranian-supported groups in
Afghanistan and Iraq. The drug trail, he said, ran from
Afghanistan through Iran to southern Iraq, where there was
increased refining activity, and from there south to the Gulf
and west to Syria. He was particularly concerned at the
prospect of Iran tacitly creating the conditions for
increased trafficking through Iraq to Syria, and how this
could play into funding and support for insurgents in Iraq.

¶5. (C/NF) He said Iran already faced growing domestic drug
abuse — the number of users had doubled since 1999 to about
four million, or five to six percent of the population,
according to a 2004 study conducted by the Iranian Health
Ministry and UNODC. Arbitrio said the Iranian government had
quashed the results and he had nearly been expelled from Iran
for divulging the figures during an interview.

Theofascists And Their Lucre

¶6. (C/NF) Arbitrio felt President Ahmadinejad was fifth or
lower in Iran’s power structure, describing him as a (not so
smart) militant, a second-generation revolutionary whose real
point of reference was the Iraq-Iran war, and who was
considered by Iran’s clerics to be “expendable equipment.”
Key religious leaders in Qom have more real influence.

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Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose record in office will be under
official scrutiny in a few months and who faces possible
replacement, is playing things safe. Arbitrio (who is
originally from Naples) likened former president Ali Hashemi
Rafsanjani to a mafia leader who knows he himself is corrupt
but, as a pragmatist, was looking to create a licit empire
for the next generation.

¶7. (C/NF) A chief center of power, according to Arbitrio, was
the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) militants, also deeply
influenced by the war with Iraq, often rivals of the clerics,
but very religious, populist, and nationalistic. Ahmadinejad
was their man. Having grown accustomed to living with
sanctions, the Pasdaran had become experts at smuggling
goods, especially through three ports on the Gulf of Oman
(between Bandar Abbas and the Pakistani border) that Arbitrio
said “were not on any maps.” He said the Pasdaran controlled
the smuggling traffic from the Gulf through these ports to
Pakistan. Arbitrio believed the younger Ahmadinejad
generation of religio-populist militants was opposed to any
liberalization of the economy, including WTO membership, that
would threaten the lucrative underground trade from which
they profited. Indeed, Arbitrio noted, one of Ahmadinejad’s
first appointments after winning the Presidency was to
appoint the head of Iran’s anti-smuggling unit in the
Interior Ministry, even before naming a minister. Using a
term he said had been coined by the Italian Ambassador in
Tehran, the UN official described the Iranian regime as one
of “theofascism” in which all unpopular views were silenced.

$250 Million for Their Trouble

¶8. (C/NF) Arbitrio felt Iran was bolstering its ties to, and
financial support for, terrorist organizations in order to
strengthen its hand throughout the region. Ahmadinejad, he
said, was the only international leader who, in the past few
months, had met with the heads of Hezbollah and Hamas, as
well as Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtadir al-Sadr, and Afghan
warlord Ismail Khan. Citing Iranian parliamentary sources,
he said Iran had spent $250 million on these groups in the
last few months alone, five times more than press reports had
suggested. He said the regime was also in contact with
Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It had increased the
number of Revolutionary Guards in regions bordering Iran in
Afghanistan in recent months and — not coincidentally, in
his view — the security situation there has worsened. To
illustrate the stength of these connections, he pointed out
that Ismail Khan, a minister in Afghan President Karzai’s
government, had visited Tehran without the knowledge of the
Afghan Ambassador.

¶9. (C/NF) Arbitrio flagged the increasing Chinese presence in
Iran as something to watch, since Tehran has an interest in
Chinese political support and China has an interest in
Iranian energy resources.


¶10. (S/NF) Arbitrio seemed earnest, and knowledgeable. His
pre-UNODC work included a stint as a counter-terrorism
researcher at a military think tank in Italy. He had been
living in Tehran for about two years and stressed he was
speaking in a purely personal capacity, without the knowledge
of his home office. He said his contacts include Iranian
parliamentarians and police. He knows the Italian Ambassador
in Tehran, Roberto Toscano, well, but has not shared his
concerns with Toscano or any other Italian government
official because he did not think the GOI was very interested
in his views. He felt talking with the U.S. had lifted a
“psychological” weight from his shoulders; he said he did not
want to be a part, even indirectly, of anything that might
help the Tehran regime advance a patently nefarious regional

¶11. (S/NF) Ref B suggests that UNODC still evaluates Iran as
genuinely committed to counter-narcotics efforts. And, per
Ref C, Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told Italian
leaders Iran considered the drug traffic from Afghanistan a
major issue. Larijani proposed that a consortium of
countries go directly to the producers and buy up all of the
opium crop for use in medicine, chemicals, and
pharmaceuticals. So, as with the $500 million proposal to
the UN, it suggests Tehran officials are thinking big about
the drug problem, whether for sinister purposes or out of
frustration at the worsening problem. With Iran, of course,

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multiple readings are always possible. And oftentimes, they
are all true. End Comment.