Three days ago, a senior Hamas official revealed that he had been gifted some 22 million dollars, in cash and stuffed into suitcases at Tehran airport, by none other than Iran’s own General Ghasem Soleimani. The extensive generosities of the late commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force have been reported on in the past. But as ever, the sources of these apparently untold millions of dollars at the IRGC’s disposal, and the extent of its network of illegal activities across the globe, remain largely unknown.
On Sunday, December 27, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founding and leading member of Hamas, made a series of explosive statements to the Arabic-language, state-run Iranian news network Al-Alam.
The ex-Palestinian foreign minister claimed that after being appointed to the post in 2006, he had traveled to Tehran and met with senior officials of the Islamic Republic, including then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After a “productive meeting” with the Iranian premier, he said he was referred to General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force.
“I explained to him our principal difficulties in paying wages, social security and other kinds of assistance to the people of Gaza. Haj Ghasem immediately responded to our request,” al-Zahar told Al-Alam. “The next day, the last day of our visit, I found 22 million dollars in suitcases at [Tehran] airport.”
Al-Zahar told this story in a manner that brought to mind scenes from a gangster movie, rather than an above-board gesture arranged by an “upright and generous” man, as he described Soleimani.
Twenty-two million dollars is hardly small change. And further, according to this senior Hamas official, “We were due to receive more money. But the Hamas delegation consisted of nine members and we could not carry more because each suitcase [only] had room for 40 kilograms.”
This sounds about right. Assuming all the gifted cash was all in hundred-dollar bills, an average-sized briefcase (64x46x12cm) could contain up to US$2,400,000. If each member of the nine-member Hamas delegation carried one, it is reasonable to assume that they could have carried $22 million in cash – but not much more than that – on their persons as they boarded the plane out of Tehran.
Hamas is officially considered a terrorist organization by the US, Canada and Israel. The UK and Australia have so far only designated its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. At the time of Mahmoud al-Zahar’s gainful visit to Iran, Hamas was on the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations as well, but it was later removed in 2014.
Even putting aside the charge of financing a terrorist organization, this $22 million “donation” by General Soleimani should have been considered money laundering by the legal standards of the Islamic Republic itself. Furthermore, the money doubtless did not come from the commander’s own pockets but from public coffers – and in all likelihood indirectly, meaning it would not have been recorded in the official government accounts.
The case is reminiscent of the embezzlement scandal involving Hamid Baghaei, Ahmadinejad’s vice president in charge of executive affairs, who was jailed for 63 years in 2017 on corruption charges. According to the final verdict of the Iranian court of appeal, which was reported by the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards in March 2018, one of the allegations against Baghaei was that he had stolen some 3.766 million euros plus $590,000 allocated to the Quds Force for “affairs related to African countries”.
In his defense statement, Baghaei had written wrote that the figures mentioned were a matter “between General Soleimani and Dr. Ahmadinejad”. The real amounts of money at stake and their purpose, he said, were known only to these two people and to nobody else, including himself.
In defense of his former vice president, Ahmadinejad himself wrote two letters to General Soleimani asking him to tell the court about “the transfer of millions of dollars”. He even implicitly threatened the commander by suggesting he could reveal communications between his administration and the Quds Force.
In that case, it transpired, it was General Soleimani who had provided Ahmadinejad’s administration with millions of dollars of cash to distribute to African organizations. This came despite the fact that the government under Ahmadinejad had significant capital at its disposal and could easily have afforded to finance these external groups itself – that is, unless the transferred funds had served another purpose entirely. Neither their origin nor their destination has ever come to light.
The Revolutionary Guards’ Empire of Dark Money
The revenue that Iran earns from oil exports and their depositing into the treasury, via the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Development Fund, are well-known and accounted for. By contrast, nobody knows how much the Revolutionary Guards make through illegal operations outside Iran’s borders.
For many years stories have been surfacing about the Revolutionary Guards’ role in illegal drug cartels, up to and including in Latin America. But the extent of these illegal forays abroad, or the money generated from such activities, remains opaque. Equally uncertain is how far the funds generated are transferred to other networks across the world and spent outside of Iran, or how much of the cash makes it back to Iran – to then be laundered, invariably, through the country’s chaotic internal economy.
Whatever the purpose of the $22 million gifted to Hamas was, the question remains: why didn’t the commander of the Quds Force use regional cash transfer networks to finance Hamas instead of stuffing hundred-dollar bills into suitcases? As ever, this “revelation” has left us with more questions than answers about the dimensions of the late commander’s illegal business activities.