Iran and the Yakuza

Published by Spectator

On Thursday, a 60-year-old Japanese crime boss appeared in a New York court to respond to charges that he helped traffic illicit material from Myanmar to Thailand. You might expect this to be a story about the Southeast Asian drug trade – it’s a vibrant business after all. In fact the supposed Yakuza boss, Takeshi Ebisawa, was allegedly caught trying to supply uranium and weapons-grade plutonium to an undercover DEA agent purporting to know a general in Iran. According to the court documents, Ebisawa and his Thai partner, who are being held in a Brooklyn jail, had been able acquire the nuclear material from an ethnic insurgent group in Myanmar.

The Islamic Republic has long used its sprawling global reach to advance its shady military, political and economic goals. As it battles some of the most extensive sanctions in modern history, it uses a variety of illicit methods – including links with transnational crime groups and fellow rogue regimes.

In the 1980s, as Iran found itself in a prolonged war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it had to overcome its international isolation by finding unusual paths for purchasing weapons. It forged strong alliances with fellow anti-western regimes like North Korea, Syria and Libya. In the same period, Tehran launched inquiries into producing clandestine unconventional weapons, some of which, such as chemical weapons, it never pursued, given the religious opposition of regime founder Ayatollah Khomeini (Iran was itself soon to be a victim of Saddam’s chemical attacks). One early important connection was with neighbouring Pakistan, a fellow Muslim country with many long-lasting cultural links to Iran. In 1984, the West German intelligence agency revealed that Iran was receiving uranium from Pakistan. It was the first-ever Western intelligence reporting on Islamic Republic’s nuclear efforts. The extent of Iran’s program was only revealed in 2002, leading to a nuclear crisis that is still unfolding.

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