Operatives of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are entering European ports, concealing their identity as seafarers while on board Iranian ships and oil tankers, sources familiar with the situation told Iran International.

The sources, who Iran International has not identified for their protection, are connected to a security apparatus in the Middle East.

They allege these individuals are not declaring their identity and are armed with weapons on the ship in European ports, specifically: Constanta (Romania) , Valencia (Spain) , Ravenna (Italy), and Antwerp (Belgium).

Sources said these armed IRGC forces may use this method as a means to spy and collect information in Europe - all while reportedly bypassing sanctions.

The European Union (EU) has imposed numerous sanctions against the Islamic Republic - including individuals with the IRGC, government officials and entities. This is in response to Iran's human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation activities and military support for Russia's war in Ukraine.

To date, 227 individuals and 42 entities have been sanctioned.

In May, the EU added new sanctions targeting persons and entities supplying, selling or involved in the transferring of Iran's missiles and drones in support of the Kremlin and for armed groups in the Middle-East and the Red Sea.

A group of sailors aboard an Iranian government commercial vessel. This IRNA photo is undated.

Defense and security analyst Farzin Nadimi, a Senior Fellow with the Washington Institute, said that onboard armed guards are usually not allowed in European ports, unless there is a reason, in which case they must identify themselves as per individual port regulations.

Iran International’s sources said the alleged IRGC men concealed themselves as ordinary seafarers to circumvent Iran’s sanctions to allegedly engage in nefarious activities. An action that violates International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations, said Nadimi, who specializes in military affairs.

“They [armed guards] are needed only for the pirates…pirate infested waters,” said Nadimi.

“Many shipping corridors, shipping lanes or canals like the Suez Canal do not usually allow armed guards aboard commercial ships,” he added.

The IMO responded to Iran International’s investigation, stating in an email, that "Flag States set the level of security on board their ships and approve their ships’ security plans, including requirements for armed personnel. Port States will also set their own requirements for ships that want to dock in their ports."

Spain and Romania, for example, require a declaration and authorization of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) and weapons in their ports. This can only be in areas deemed ‘high risk’, which according to their port regulations online is "an area as defined in the Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy (MSC.1/Circ.1339) unless otherwise defined by the flag State."

With regards to Iran, the IMO said it does “not have specific information on the use of armed personnel on IRI flag ships.”

Maritime "Smuggling"

Sources said the IRGC is transporting Quds forces and weaponry from Iran to Syria by sea before entering European ports.

Iran’s alleged use of armed IRGC men and smuggling weaponry for its proxies is likely in response to Israeli attacks on air and land infrastructure in Syria and Lebanon, according to Jason Brodsky, the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran.

In 2021, the port of Latakia was targeted by air strikes, but Israel did not claim to be behind it. Though it is not unusual for Israel not to take responsibility for operations in Syria.

“They [Iran] are adjusting the routes, the smuggling routes that they have used in the past from land to air and now to maritime smuggling. And that's because Israel has targeted a lot of the land and air corridors,” said Brodsky.

A recent report by the Telegraph, citing sources in Israel, alleged that Iran uses European ports to provide cover for shipments of weapons to Hezbollah.

The unnamed sources told the British outlet that Hezbollah has received missiles and bombs on ships that go on to dock in European ports like Belgium, Spain and Italy. Those weapons are reportedly used to attack Israel.

“It goes to Hezbollah. It goes to militias in Syria. It goes to, Palestinian militant groups, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” said Brodsky.

Brodsky said the IRGC is highly skilled at smuggling arms, oil, people, and goods for its “nefarious purposes worldwide.”

In 2022, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned members of an international oil smuggling network that reportedly facilitated oil trades and generated revenue for Hezbollah and the IRCG-Qods Force.

Brodsky said the ships likely bypass customs with “payoffs” and attempts to make the cargo look “benign” embedding weapons, for example, in a ship meant for humanitarian cargo.

“These networks are predominantly for the Quds Force to ship illicit contraband and other kinds of products to avoid a paper trail and to try to legitimize the cargo that they're using,” said Brodsky.

Richard Goldberg, a Senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) said that Iran, especially since the October 7 massacre, is on a march to strengthen itself around the world and is on the offence.

Armed IRGC operatives on board these fleets is not surprising to Goldberg, but he said it is concerning.

“They [Europe] may know about them, they may not even be looking for them. But they certainly allow them to fundraise, to activate, to recruit and potentially, move in and out of their countries, at various ports. Because their names are not on list to be denied visas or entry.”

Goldberg said it’s further evidence for the European Union (EU) to enlist the IRGC a terrorist entity and push for greater alliances across the transatlantic.

“To build a transatlantic alliance to counter these malign activities that are a danger not just to European soil, but ultimately to North America as well,” he said.

More News