ADEN -- Iran and its proxies in the Middle East are deeply involved in the illegal drug trade, which they rely on for funding, with busts across the region revealing the involvement of groups like Lebanese Hizbullah and, increasingly, the Houthis.
Hizbullah has a long track record of dealing in illegal drugs, as do Iran-backed Iraqi militias, who smuggle or facilitate the trafficking of various types of narcotics into Iraq from across the borders of both Iran and Syria.
Iraqi security forces on April 30 broke up a drug trafficking ring and seized about 6.2 million Captagon pills from a warehouse in Baghdad, making seven arrests, AFP reported.
Around the same time, Iraqi forces broke up a second drug ring after an individual was arrested "in possession of 6kg of hashish", while two accomplices also were detained, the national security agency said in a statement.
The 10 accused "admitted to links with international drug trafficking networks", the agency said.
Iraq's northwestern neighbour Syria is the Middle East's main producer of Captagon, an amphetamine type stimulant, which is trafficked across the region.
Cross-border drug trafficking from Iran also continues into Iraq, despite governmental efforts to contain it, Iraqi officials said.
The "illegal drug trade is run by armed militias linked to Iran", said military and strategy analyst Muayyed Salem al-Juhaishi.
"These militias are directly responsible for drug trafficking in Iraq, which currently constitutes one of their biggest sources of funding," he said.
Most narcotics entering the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq are smuggled in by armed groups backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or its partners, said observers.
"There is a large influx of drugs, mostly from Iran," Kurdistan Organisation for Human Rights Watch executive director Hoshyar Malo told Al-Mashareq.
There is growing evidence that the Houthis are getting in on the game, with the IRGC's Quds Force (IRGC-QF) supplying the group with narcotics and recruiting smugglers to traffic illegal drugs on its behalf.
Houthis emulate Hizbullah
On May 4, Saudi security forces announced that land patrols in the kingdom's Jizan, Najran and Asir provinces had thwarted several drug-smuggling attempts.
They seized 760kg of hashish and more than 45 tonnes of qat, according to Saudi Border Guard spokesman Col. Misfir al-Qarini.
They arrested 61 individuals in connection with the operation, including 11 Ethiopian nationals, seven Yemeni nationals and two Pakistanis, who were arrested and handed over to the authorities, along with the narcotics.
The IRGC-QF is smuggling large quantities of drugs to the Houthis, who in turn smuggle them into neighbouring countries by various means, said Yemeni Deputy Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez.
It has recruited Yemenis and foreign nationals, including Ethiopians, to smuggle illegal drugs across the Yemeni-Saudi land border, he said.
The IRGC and its proxies rely on the drug trade as a source of income, he said, adding that the IRGC is attempting to replicate, with the Houthis, the success of Lebanese Hizbullah's long and prosperous association with the drug trade.
Iran also uses the drug trade to undermine the stability of its regional adversaries, including Saudi Arabia, he said.
It uses profits from the illegal trade to support its militias, and thereby further its goals of "exporting the revolution" and destabilising the Arabian Gulf, he added, calling on Yemeni and Saudi forces to increase their vigilance.
As long as the regional smuggling of arms and drugs is allowed to continue, he noted, a lifeline will continue to exist for the IRGC and its affiliates.
Smuggling via land crossings
In thwarting drug smuggling attempts, Saudi border guards have revealed that the IRGC and its proxies are tampering with "the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf", said economist Abdul Aziz Thabet.
The areas where the drug busts occurred -- in the kingdom's Najran, Jizan and Asir provinces, near the Yemen border -- "reveal the involvement of the Houthis, and behind them the IRGC", he said.
"The IRGC evidently provided the Houthis with the funding they needed to carry out the operation," he said.
Thabet pointed to the Houthis' exploitation of African migrants, including Ethiopians, who are recruited and sent to the battlefronts or to carry out drug and hashish smuggling operations to Saudi Arabia.
In many cases, shipments of illegal drugs concealed in other types of cargo, including fruit, have been apprehended at the kingdom's sea- and airports, political analyst Mahmoud al-Taher said.
"But the strict measures taken by the kingdom, after it discovered tonnes of drugs at Saudi ports, drove the IRGC to step up its [land] drug smuggling operations through the Houthis in Yemen," he said.
Informants have played a key role in uncovering these operations in recent months, with some insiders tipping off the security services about them after disputes occur over the deals and division of spoils.