About 85 Africans were arrested in Iran on Sunday, according to Iranian news accounts, with more than 100 pounds of cocaine and heroine destined for export. Iran’s harsh drug laws will likely result in a death sentence for the smugglers.
The arrests come at a time when opium production in Afghanistan is at an all-time high this year, much of which is exported through Iran, according to the United Nations and the U.S. Department of State.
Iran grows almost none of its own opium, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, but it has one of the world’s highest rates of opiate addiction and it is getting worse. The organization’s 2007 World Drug Report classified Iran as having one of the world’s largest increases in opiate addiction, and the government estimates there are 1.2 million drug abusers, which is 2.8 percent of people ages 15 to 64.
Many attribute the large number of drug abusers to an unusually young population and a large degree of unemployment, estimated at more than 11 percent by the International Monetary Fund.
Tehran is not ignoring this fact, but since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 the government has shifted its focus away from combating the demand for drugs with treatment programs and placed most of its emphasis on stopping the flow of drugs through the country, according to Abbas William Samii, an Iran expert who has written extensively about the country’s drug problems and is a regional analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses.
Trafficking has been a particular problem for the government in Tehran. About 53 percent of the opium that left Afghanistan in 2006 traveled through Iran. In fact, about 68 percent of the opium seized in the world in 2005 was taken in Iran, according to the United Nations, just under the average for the previous 16 years.
While many dispute the reliability of Iran’s seizure statistics, most agree that a great deal of these drugs come from Afghanistan through Pakistan, and into southeastern Iran, a region with a long history of volatility.
This volatility makes the job of interdiction a difficult one for security forces on the ground. In 2005 more than a quarter of drug seizures in Iran came by way of “armed clashes,” according to the Iranian Drug Control Headquarters.
Many of the traffickers travel in armed convoys, and the routes are largely controlled by local warlords, which has proved deadly for Iranian security forces, according to a report by the UNODC. Overall, between 1979 and 2006 about 3,600 Iranian police officers were killed in Iran’s war on drugs.
As recently as July, 11 members of the Revolutionary Guard where killed in an ambush by smugglers in the region, according to a report by Agence France-Press.
“What we see a lot of, what we see in the eastern provinces of Iran, a lot of what is done in the name of drug interdiction and law enforcement has always struck me as more akin to counter-insurgency tactics,” Samii said.
In the southeast, one of the poorest regions in Iran, the population has made its living by smuggling for many years, even prior to the revolution in 1979, according to Samii.
“They try to make a living however they can, and it often ends up in criminal activities,” he said.
However hard Tehran fights drugs smuggled in from Afghanistan, it is still facing a growing population of drug abusers at home.
“It is not just the opiates -- opium, heroin and morphine -- that originate in Afghanistan that are problems in Iran. Synthetic drugs, things like methamphetamines, ecstasy, LSD and amphetamines, those things too are becoming more and more commonplace in Iran,” Samii said.
When these synthetics first entered the country around 2003, the government simply denied the problem, according to Samii. But as it got worse, Tehran began to blame the problem on imports from Europe.
“It is no more just a supply-driven problem. I can see how drugs from Afghanistan, on the way to Europe, might get sold in Iran. But when you’ve got ecstasy originating in Europe, being manufactured there, being transported to Iran, that shows that it is a very much demand-driven issue,” Samii said.