Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed half a ton of documents and compact discs on Monday that had been smuggled out of Iran’s nuclear archive. The secret documents included 55,000 pages and 183 CDs. According to reports they were taken out in one night but some documents had to be left behind because they were too heavy.
So how does one smuggle so much material out of Iran?
There is no shortage of stories about people and things being smuggled out of the Islamic Republic. The 2012 film Argo
depicted the true story of a joint CIA and Canadian government operation to get six US diplomats out of the country in 1980. They were brought out on a Swissair flight to Zurich via Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, disguised as workers on a science-fiction film. One idea proposed for getting the diplomats out was to have them ride out on bicycles along back roads to Tabriz where they would eventually peddle into Turkey or Azerbaijan.
Another smuggling story that made headlines was that of Betty Mahmoody who was smuggled out of Iran in 1986. According to the book and film, both named Not Without My Daughter
, Mahmoody escaped by crossing over the mountains to Turkey. This was not the only plan a friend of hers came up with to get her out of Iran. Another was to cross the Persian Gulf from Bandar Abbas to one of the Gulf Arab states. Mahmoody and her friend also considered going through the Baloch region of Iran into Pakistan. That was in the 1980s. Much has changed since then.
Over the last decades, according to numerous foreign reports and books, Israel has sought to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program in a variety of ways. In 2012, Philipp Bleek and David Vielhaber wrote an article called “Shadow Wars” in The Nonproliferation Review
that was based on several reports on this issue. The writers detailed a covert war of cyberattacks and sabotage aimed at Iran’s nuclear program. Western intelligence also set up front companies to introduce sabotaged material and even fake blueprints into Iran. But all these operations involved things going into Iran, not out.
There are plenty of people who know how to get people and things out of Iran. Smugglers operate a massive shadow economy on its borders. In 2010, the BBC reported on the smuggling routes at Yuksekova in Turkey near the border. The cramped shops were full of “Iranian carpets stacked up, shelves are crammed with Iranian teapots, bags of Iranian sugar,” and other goodies, according to the report. “One Iranian businessman says he can transfer anything overnight to Iran across the mountains, even a machine as big as a bulldozer.”
Another smuggler claimed he could get things over the mountains to Iran in eight hours.
At a shop in far-away Istanbul, the report claimed, just 10% of the Iran-bound goods were being exported legally. “I export strategic equipment, like airplane parts to Iran,” one man said. American items were also being smuggled across the border through the mountains.
THE SMUGGLING INCREASED with the sanctions that were imposed on Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal. In 2013, the Financial Times
reported a “boom” in cross-border fuel and goods smuggling. Oil, for instance, was moved on trucks illegally through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey, the report claimed, estimated at between seven and 10 million liters of gasoline and diesel each day.
Anything can be smuggled, including heavy, bulky items, such as home appliances. Many of the regions on Iran’s border are dominated by minority groups that loathe the regime. These groups include Kurds and the Baloch people, among others. The Financial Times
article mentioned Iranian Kurds in Baneh, not far from Iraq. It claimed that some businessmen, even those working for state industries, ran a thriving smuggling business. Many poor families in these area have been reduced to smuggling as a result of the oppression of the regime, which does not hesitate to shoot smugglers who get caught, along with the horses they use.
A story on Radio Free Europe in 2017 claimed that hundreds have been killed for smuggling or on suspicion of smuggling by Iranian authorities.
If the mountain route seems dangerous, a smuggler can choose a less-dangerous sea route. In January, the Iran Border Guard Command, or coast guard, stopped eight freighters filled with smuggled items – including 15,000 blankets and 13,000 cans of soda – that were crossing from the Gulf Arab states into Iran’s Khuzestan Province.
Smugglers ply the Persian Gulf in a brisk trade. When dark settles on the Strait of Hormuz, speedboats rush goods back and forth between Iran and Oman. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps also, according to a report by Reuters last August, operates its own smuggling network, in which guardsmen “funnel covert arms shipments to their Houthi allies” in Yemen.
How? They send parts of missiles, launchers and drugs via Kuwait, according to one Iranian official. In July 2017, Bahrain stopped an Iranian smuggling operation and found 33 kilograms of hashish and one kilogram of methamphetamine.
The picture that is being painted of Iran’s borders is one of thousands of kilometers of underdeveloped areas teeming with lawlessness and smugglers. Everything from bulldozers to missiles, convoys of oil trucks and carpets are going back and forth.
Through the thriving shadow economy – even with Iran’s crackdown after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015 – a half-ton of old CDs and some binders would have passed unnoticed. Or you could simply scan them onto a thumb drive.