Iran’s Unit 190: The special force smuggling weapons by land, sea and air

Iran’s Unit 190: The special force smuggling weapons by land, sea and air

Iran is involved in numerous trans-border conflicts and political rivalries through the militias it supports in Arab states. While unit 400 is in charge of settling political scores outside of Iran, unit 190 is tasked with smuggling weapons and ammunition to other countries, both units are affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

What is Unit 190?

In early 2015, Thai website “VSQuds” investigated activities of Al-Quds Force and Units 400 and 190, including their complicity in assassinations and arms trafficking abroad.

In a report titled “Unit 190-Weapons Transfer Unit”, the website, which specializes in the affairs of Al-Quds Force, said that transferring and smuggling weapons to ethnic organizations, groups and states, which are in line with Iranian interests, were among the units’ key activities.

The report added that Unit 190 was overseeing these activities from within Al-Quds Force, and deemed as a special unit that smuggles weapons to conflict-stricken regions as part of exporting Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. According to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the unit is comprised of 20 members.

The Thai website concludes that Tehran has continued to smuggle weapons despite Security Council resolutions No 1747 (2007), 1929 (2010), and 2015 (2013) which prohibit it from exporting arms to other countries. Thanks to Unit 190, Iran has transferred tens of thousands of tons of weaponry, disguised as “harmless goods”, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad regime in Syria, Palestinian factions in Gaza and Houthis in Yemen.

Modus Operandi

According to the aforementioned Thai website, Unit 190 uses a host of methods to transfer weapons, which are usually shipped with other goods as a disguise, and to maximize their chances of reaching the desired destination while ensuring that no association with Iran is revealed should they explode or end up in the wrong hands.

Weapons are often placed in closed cages in a large container, surrounded by other goods to camouflage trafficking. In order to reach the hidden weapons, one would need to disassemble thousands of harmless goods.

The second step in the smuggling process is to register the shipment as “relief and humanitarian aid”. The unit has developed advanced packaging solutions, giving the impression that all goods in the containers are completely harmless. In addition, weapons are placed in boxes that are identical to those containing other goods used for camouflage, including construction material, polyethylene products, dry milk and car parts.

To ensure further confidentiality and caution, Unit 190 uses civil shipment methods, such as boats, planes, trucks and trains. These shipments are transferred via different countries, concealing any possible affiliation with Iran. Furthermore, the sender ensures that weapons are not produced in Iran and do not carry the tag “made in Iran”, in order to help Iran deny any links should the shipment be confiscated or unveiled.

The unit smuggles weapons through numerous channels of transportation, including land, water and air.

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Smuggling by air

The first air route connects Iran and Syria, transferring weapons on civil and military flights between the two countries via Iraq. Iranian companies are also involved in the transfer of weapons, such as Iran Air, Mahan Air, Caspian Airlines and Meraj Airlines.

In April and May 2013, Fateh-110 missiles were transferred to Hezbollah through this route, but Israel intercepted the shipment in Syrian airspace. The majority of weapons used by the Syrian army against the opposition, are also transferred through this same route. Another smuggling route passes through Turkey before reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The third route departs from Iran to Sudan, where weapons are transferred again to Gaza. In 2012, the unit transferred hundreds of tons of strategic weapons to Palestinian factions in Gaza through 6 direct flights to Sudan, operated by Iranian Air and Mahan Air. However, this shipment was destroyed in Sudan a month later.

The fourth route departs from Iran to Sudan via Syria before reaching the final destination in Gaza. Weapons are smuggled through direct flights from Tehran to Damascus International Airport, where they are transferred again through civil flights to Khartoum Airport, in Sudan.

Smuggling by sea

The unit also smuggles weapons by sea, including via the Iran-Sudan route. Ships, heading to Port Sudan in the Red Sea, are loaded with weapons and other goods, and continue to sail to Egypt without discharging their content. Once they reach Egypt, they head to Gaza through established smuggling networks.

In March 2014, the Israeli Navy halted a shipment of 1500 KMs to the south of the Israeli borders. The shipment was heading from Iran to Palestinian factions via Sudan. It was placed on civilian vessel “KLOS-C”, and contained 40 M-302 missiles with a range between 90–160 KMs. Unit 190 deliberately placed weapons on a Panamian-flagged vessel, concealing any affiliation with Iran.

There is another route to smuggle weapons from Iran to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In January, 2013, for example, Yemeni security forces halted a shipment aboard a small boat called “Jihan -1”, departing from Iran to Yemen. It contained around 40 tons of weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In a similar incident in October 2009, the Yemeni Navy seized Iranian-flagged “Mahan -1” ship, carrying anti-tank missiles from Al-Quds Force to Houthi rebels in Yemen.

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Last April, the American Navy announced that they seized a shipment in the Arabian Sea, believed to be an Iranian shipment heading to Yemen. According to the American Navy, “USS Sirocco” found weapons hidden on a small dhow, including 1500 AK-rifles, 200 rocket propelled grenades (RPG), 21.50 – caliber machine guns. The crew were released after confiscating the weapons.

Unit 190 also smuggles weapons from Syria to Gaza via Egypt. In March, 2011, Al-Quds Force tried to send around 50 tons of weapons to Egypt on vessel Victoria, a German Liberian-flagged ship. The ship headed to Egypt via Turkey, but was intercepted by the Israeli Navy 200 miles away from the Israeli borders. Land-to-sea missiles were found in the containers.

Unit 190 is also involved in African countries. In October, 2010, Nigerian security forces seized rocket launchers, grenades and mortars, hidden in containers that allegedly carried “construction material”. After extensive investigations, they found that weapons had been placed on Vessel MV Everest, owned by a French company, in Iranian Bandar Abbas port. The ship headed to Lagos via India, but weapons were found before reaching their final destination, which was believed to be Zambia.

Another smuggling route departs from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. In November 2009, Unit 190 tried to transfer 36 containers of weaponry from Iran to Latakia port in Syria, to be used by Hezbollah. The containers were loaded aboard civilian vessel “Francop” in Dubai and Egypt at sea, in an attempt to conceal any affiliation with Iran. However, the Israeli Navy seized the containers, which were believed to carry polyethylene products, but turned out to contain 500 tons of weapons.

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According to a report, published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, small ships owned by the Iranian Navy are also used in critical and confidential operations, such as in smuggling prohibited material and technologies, necessary for Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. Sometimes, Iran uses foreign civilian ships to transfer weapons to its foreign proxies and allies without informing owners and crews.

The report added that civilian ships are deemed as “assistance from external sources” provided to Iranian Navy, and they included: Karine (2000), Monchegorsk (2009), Francop (2009), Victoria (2011) and KLOS-C.

Smuggling by land

Trucks transfer weapons from Iran to Syria by land. In recent years, Unit 190 has transferred weapons, equipment and goods from Iran to Sudan, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah.

Smuggling also takes place aboard trains from Iran to Syria via Turkey. In May, 2007, a weapons’ shipment from Al-Quds Force to Syria was seized aboard a train. Passing through Turkey, the shipment was believed to be heading to Hezbollah and contained 122mm mortars, explosives and other types of arms. In addition, the invoice of the shipment was found, signed by Behnam Shahriary, a senior official in Al-Quds Force, on behalf of a proxy company called Shahriary Exports, LTD.

The aforementioned proxy company turned out to be a Tehran-based entity, registered as a company specialized in exports and imports.

Who is Behnam Shahriari?

Thanks to his influence over strategic ties between the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah, Behnam Shahriari rose to fame in Iran and enjoys significant support from Major General Qasem Soleimani, another influential figure in Iran’s operations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Overseeing the operations of Unit 190, which is tasked with smuggling weapons to Arab and African states, Shahriari is believed to have been involved in many smuggling operations to these countries.

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