The neighbor’s exports

Iran is looking for a way to combat growing drug use

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli speaks during press conference in which he announced Iran has seized 530 tons of illegal drugs since April 2013, on March 18, 2014 in Tehran. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE
Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli

Afghan opium is contributing to Iran’s drug problem — an issue which Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli is being surprisingly candid about. In recent pronouncements, he said 1.3 million Iranians, from a population of 75 million, are addicts.

Drug seizures were up by 17 percent in the 11 months to February 2014 to 532 tons, Fazli has also revealed. He warned of increased use of synthetic drugs, with the police seizing 3,500 kilograms of crystal meth and discovering 375 laboratories in the Iranian year 2013–14. But while the seizures included meth alongside heroin and cocaine, opium amounted to 77 percent.

Iran has followed several strategies to combat the problem. To crack down on smuggling, the authorities are building extensive security fences along the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Opium international

The 2014 Afghan opium harvest is expected to match or exceed last year’s record, when 209,000 hectares of poppies yielded 5,500 metric tons of opium, up 49 percent from 2012, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul.

The UN estimates the potential gross value of Afghan opiates last year at $3 billion, or 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, with 200,000 families involved in production. While the US has spent $7.5 billion to eradicate opium production, it has done little to offer alternatives.

The US overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 led to a rise in opium production, as the Taliban had worked with the UN to curb poppy farming. But in recent years, the Taliban has looked to poppies to help fund its armed opposition to the Karzai regime, raising around $100 million a year according to the US defense department.
This is bad news globally, as 80 percent of global heroin originates in Afghan opium, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Current global heroin consumption (340 tons) and seizures represent an annual flow of 430-450 tons into the global market, according to the UNODC’s annual World Drug Report. Opium from Myanmar and Laos yields some 50 tons, but 380 tons of heroin are produced from Afghan opium.

The Balkan and northern routes are the main corridors linking Afghanistan to the huge markets of the Russian Federation and western Europe. The Balkan route traverses Iran (often via Pakistan), Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria across south-east Europe to western Europe, an annual market of $20 billion.
The northern route runs through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (or Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan) to Kazakhstan and Russia, where the market totals $13 billion per year.

Those in the drug’s final destinations are only getting more hooked. Pakistan has around 1 million heroin users, half using needles of whom 30 per cent are HIV positive, according to the UN. Russia had 5.5 million addicts in 2012, up 60 percent from a decade ago. The United States reported 669,000 users in 2012, up from 373,000 in 2007.

Of special concern to the West, Afghanistan’s role as the source of most of the world’s heroin means Iran is a major transit route (see box). Dawud Salahuddin, an African American activist exiled in Tehran, has long advocated for cooperation between Iran and the US to combat trafficking. Salahuddin fled the US in 1980 after assassinating the Shah’s press officer at the behest of the revolutionary authorities in Tehran, and he remains wanted by Washington while working as an editor in Iran.

In 1996, Salahuddin wrote to the US State Department requesting a meeting between two officials, one on each side, whom he knew. His concern was rooted in witnessing the growing use of drugs by African Americans, but after fleeing the US to Iran in 1980, he became aware of the supply coming from Afghanistan.

In 2007, Salahuddin wrote an account of how he came to write the letter “A Super Cop, a Revolutionary Prosecutor and Dumb Diplomacy” for www.storiesthatmatter.org — now called DC Bureau — a website run by investigative US journalist Joseph Trento.

“In Bushehr [southern Iran] in 1980 I’d met Habibollah Mogheissi, a young cleric who was head of the Revolutionary Court and enormously personable,” Salahuddin wrote. “He was remarkably handsome, well built, enjoyed a good laugh and any time he walked the dusty streets in that backwater Gulf port street urchins would seemingly appear from nowhere and shout his name. I met Mogheissi again in 1986 when I started crossing into Afghanistan, when he was head of the Revolutionary Court in Mashhad, Khorasan Province [eastern Iran], then the dark heart of the largest heroin transitway in the world leading from Afghanistan.”

The American Salahuddin knew was a Washington detective, Carl Shoffler, best known as the arresting officer in the 1972 Watergate break in, and who between 1993 and 1996 as Salahuddin’s case officer had frequent telephone conversations with him discussing Salahuddin’s possible return to the US.

Like Salahuddin, Shoffler was alarmed by heroin use in the US, and in 1995 he asked if Salahuddin could set up a practical exchange of information with Iran over smugglers. Salahuddin passed the request to Mogheissi, who said he would meet Shoffler “anywhere in the world.” It was quickly established through Salahuddin that the officers were both monitoring at least one Iranian in Washington.

Shoffler could not get clearance from superiors for a meeting. Frustration at the lack of progress led Salahuddin to write to Robin Raphael, a US assistant secretary of state, who had accused Iran of sitting on its hands over heroin transshipments. She never replied, and within three years both Shoffler and Mogheissi had died, from pancreatic malfunction and cancer, respectively.

Eighteen years on, Salahuddin is sanguine about the prospects for cooperation between the two countries. “It is hard not to conclude that the idea of US–Iran collaboration against the drugs trade is beyond the vision and imagination of both sides,” he told Executive from Tehran.

Salahuddin suggested this reflects wider priorities of the governments. “First of all ‘drugs’ is a fuzzy word that means different things to different people. Are we talking about narcotics or hallucinogens? If we are talking about medically defined narcotics then both governments would be in a bind financially and politically because the outstanding narcotic addiction and cause of mortality worldwide is tobacco … [It] kills at least 2,000 percent more worldwide than all other illicit substances combined. Alcohol is another narcotic that takes away some 400 percent more human souls in a year than illicit materials. Yet both are legal.”

The financial pressures are strong, he continued: “Tobacco and alcohol are two of a dwindling number of growth industries in the US, with the boom markets being poor Americans and even poorer developing countries. And for all the talk about Iran’s narcotics problem, its being the heroin highway to the West, Iran’s tobacco industry is a state owned monopoly. Although one can’t get accurate statistics on the subject here, you can be sure cigarettes and tobacco products kill hundreds of times more Iranians than Afghan smack.”

Nor are all the economic factors related to heroin above the table. “Admittedly I don’t follow anymore in detail the long, nasty path to profitability of heroin from Kandahar to London on to Harlem and many more points north, west and south. But I realized as a US teenager during the Vietnam War that drugs, narcotics, call them what you like, rarely cross borders without whatever governments are involved getting their cut.”

Whatever allegations have been made over corruption in Iran, it has lost many law enforcement officers in the war on drugs, even if there are no reliable figures. “Iran,” continued Salahuddin, “has paid perhaps the highest price in the world with respect to dead military, police and other agents — or maybe they are third after Mexico and Colombia.”

In a book published three years ago, “Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran,” Janne Bjerre Christensen, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen, suggested 3,500 Iranian police officers had been killed fighting smugglers since 1979, although her figure omitted customs officers and soldiers.

Iran has also adopted draconian punishments. Interior Minister Fazli revealed that drug smugglers account for 80 percent of all executions, which he defended on the grounds that “generally, they are armed and violent people who have even committed rape.” According to the UN, at least 500 people were executed in Iran in 2013, one of the world’s highest rates, with 57 people executed in public.

The authorities have for a long time blamed the West for providing demand for narcotics, an explanation that squares with notions of Western moral decline. But such arguments sit uneasily with addiction among veterans from the ‘sacred’ war of 1980–88 with Iraq. In reality, drug use in Iran is not new.

Christensen cited an estimate of up to 3.5–4 million drug users in Iran, or around 5 percent of the population. But she also wrote that, according to government figures from the 1950s, 1.5 million of the then population of 19 million (8 percent) were drug users, with eating or smoking opium common since the 15th century.

Christensen highlighted Iran’s treatment and rehabilitation programs, in cooperation with international agencies, and noted that the Ahmadinejad government endorsed “one of the most progressive, NGO-operated drug treatment programs in the Middle East.” Debates in Iran about whether harm reduction — such as using methadone — effectively endorses drug use, she argued, are similar to those elsewhere, as are equivocal attitudes among the police.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that www.storiesthatmatter.org was simply a defunct website, failing to note that its content had moved to DC Bureau.

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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