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Iran: Drug Control Emphasized As New 'Crack' Gains Popularity

  • Bill Samii --> A 50-ton cache of drugs is burned in Iran (file photo) (epa) As the neighbor of Afghanistan, the world's biggest producer of opium, Iran for years has had to contend with high levels of drug smuggling and drug abuse. Tehran has applied different strategies to contend with drug-related problems, and in recent months it has tried new ones. Yet the drug-abuse problem continues, and the drug of choice is increasingly compressed heroin (crack), rather than opium or normal heroin. Meanwhile, Tehran is very active in multilateral drug control initiatives, and it also engages Afghanistan on a bilateral level in its effort to confront narcotics.

Iran emphasized supply reduction and interdiction for many years as it tried to contend with the flood of narcotics coming from Afghanistan in the 1990s and the first half of this decade. This approach was matched with an emphasis on the punishment of people involved with drugs, from addicts to smugglers. Imprisonment was common, and individuals holding more than 30 grams of heroin or 5 kilograms of opium could be executed. To this day, the bulk of the Iranian prison population comprises individuals arrested for drug offenses. For example, 31 percent of the 46,930 people imprisoned in the December-January period were addicts, Justice Minister Jamal Karimirad said in "Farhang-i Ashti" on February 22, and another 40 percent were imprisoned for drug-related offenses.

Sound Policy?

Not everybody is convinced of the wisdom of this approach. Ayatollah Hassan Marashi, who previously served on the High Council for Judicial Development and in the judiciary, said many people who become drug dealers do so out of economic necessity, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 28. Arresting and imprisoning such people is counterproductive because their families only sink deeper into poverty and sometimes turn to prostitution. "Punishment does not correct people's behavior," he said. "We pay no attention to the causes and we merely pursue the effects."

Nonetheless, arresting addicts continues to be government policy. Fada-Hussein Maleki, secretary-general of the Drug Control Headquarters, announced a nationwide plan to round up addicts that would begin in the new Iranian year (after March 21). Maleki explained that some 3,000 of the addicts on Tehran's streets are sick, and the overall plan is to detain and treat up to 550,000 of the most dangerous intravenous drug users, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 26.

Brigadier General Hamid Maleki, a counternarcotics official from the Iranian police, said Iran has spent more than $900 million to secure the frontier with Afghanistan and Pakistan by building border posts, watch towers, barbed-wire fences, and trenches.

Meanwhile, consumption habits are changing. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) 2005-07 "Strategic Program Framework" for Iran that was released in June notes that opium (smoked, injected, or consumed in tea), opium residue, and cannabis are the commonly abused drugs. Abuse of heroin is on the rise, according to the UNODC, and it is sniffed, smoked, or injected.

Six months later, Abdullah Roshan, Tehran's deputy governor for political and security affairs, said the price for compressed heroin (crack) has fallen and it is supplanting regular heroin as the drug of choice for addicts, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 December. Roshan added that 700,000 tablets of the drug ecstasy had been confiscated in Tehran in the previous nine months.

Iranian officials routinely say there are 1.2 million drug addicts in the country, and an estimated 800,000 people abuse drugs occasionally. The UNODC says roughly 2 percent of the country's 68 million residents abuse drugs. The State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs says in its "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report -- 2006," which was released on March 1, that an estimated 3 million Iranians abuse opiates, with 60 percent of them addicted and the remaining 40 percent being casual users. "The latest opiate seizure statistics from Iran suggest Iran is experiencing an epidemic of drug abuse, especially among its youth," the report says.

Multilateral Initiatives

As it has tried to come to terms with the scale of the drug-control problem it faces, Tehran has become increasingly active in multilateral drug-control bodies -- such as the Dublin Group and the Paris Pact -- and it works closely with the UNODC. The Dublin Group was established in 1990 as an informal coordination body that meets to exchange views on international drug affairs (production, trafficking, and abuse), make recommendations on ways to contend with these problems, and coordinate members' approaches to these problems. Dublin Group members are the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the United States, and the UNODC participates in its meetings.

A seizure of opium in Afghanistan, May 2005 (AFP)

The Mini-Dublin Group for Southwest Asia includes Dublin Group members' diplomatic representatives in Iran, and its meetings are attended by Iranian officials. The Mini-Dublin Group works on the drug situation in Iran and related policy initiatives. In addition to serving as a venue for analyzing priorities, coordinating cooperation, and making recommendations, these meetings serve as a venue for interacting with Iranian drug-control authorities.

Lesley Pallett, chief of the Drugs and International Crime Department at the British Foreign Commonwealth Office, described the Mini-Dublin Group as a "key point of contact" between the Iranian authorities and the international community when she was in Tehran in September.

At a December 5 Mini-Dublin Group meeting in Tehran, Iranian officials stressed the importance of creating a "security belt" around Afghanistan, ISNA reported. Iranian drug-control chief Fada-Hussein Maleki said the United Kingdom should be able to secure Afghanistan's borders, with cooperation from the country's neighbors, because British troops are present in Afghanistan. Maleki also praised the activities of the UNODC in Iran and said the cooperation of France, Germany, Italy, Iran, and the United Kingdom is increasing.

The Paris Pact is another multilateral drug-control group with which Iran is involved, and Tehran hosted a Paris Pact roundtable on September 13-14. The Paris Pact started with a meeting of 55 countries in the French capital in May 2003, when they agreed on the need for strong and coordinated border-control activities and law enforcement along the main drug-trafficking routes. UNODC subsequently launched the Paris Pact Initiative, with support from France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Counternarcotics enforcement experts, as well as delegations from 20 countries, the EU, the Economic Cooperation Organization, Interpol, and UNODC participated in the September meeting in Tehran. Opiates trafficking and drug-control activities in Iran were discussed, as were the need to strengthen regional and international cooperation on drug control in Iran. One of the newer initiatives mentioned at this event was the Nomak Project, which collects and analyses information on Southwest Asia heroin trafficking.

The UNODC has been working with Iran for approximately one decade and has had an office in Tehran since the late-1990s. According to its "Strategic Program Framework" for 2005-07, its objectives are to assist Tehran in reducing narcotics trafficking, contribute to prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation in connection with drug abuse and HIV/AIDS, and to promote the rule of law. UNODC has established quantifiable indicators for measuring the success of its efforts. Roberto Arbitrio, head of the UNODC office in Tehran, told the September Paris Pact meeting that the strategy for Iran was developed in collaboration with the Mini-Dublin Group and with Iranian authorities.

Working With Afghanistan

Brigadier General Hamid Maleki, a counternarcotics official from the Iranian police, told the Paris Pact meeting that his country has spent more than $900 million to secure the frontier with Afghanistan and Pakistan by building border posts, watch towers, barbed-wire fences, and trenches. Iran also trains Afghan border guards and counternarcotics personnel, equips border posts in Afghanistan, and provides motorcycles.

In mid-March, furthermore, the Iranian parliament authorized the government to lend $20 million to other countries for demand reduction and counternarcotics activities.

Iranian officials insist that the international community do more to defray the associated costs, because Iranian efforts prevent drugs from reaching Europe. For example, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, the Iranian ambassador in Vienna, said in a December 10 meeting with UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa that international aid to Iran is "insufficient and trivial," IRNA reported.

Absent more assistance, Iran works directly with countries that are fighting drugs, particularly Afghanistan. Drug-control personnel from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan met in Rawalpindi on December 6 to exchange information, Associated Press of Afghanistan reported. Afghan Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi visited Iran on January 3 to meet with his Iranian counterpart, discuss cooperation, and inspect the border, Mashhad radio reported. Ezzatollah Wasafi, the governor of Farah Province in Afghanistan, visited Iran on January 14 and said he secured Tehran's pledge to help his administration's poppy eradication efforts, Mashhad radio reported. On February 28, Afghanistan signed an agreement with Iran, China, and Pakistan on border security in an effort to control smuggling, AFP reported. Qaderi and Maleki met again in Vienna on March 18, during the meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), IRNA reported.

While some officials are critical of what they see as inadequate international assistance, others believe something more sinister is behind the drug-abuse problem in Iran. Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani said in his February 24 Friday prayers sermon in Tehran, "Another instance of their conspiracy is narcotics," state radio reported. He did not identify the alleged conspirators but continued: "They plot methods of importing drugs into our country and promoting such ugly deeds among our youth so as to destroy the backing of Islam and Islamic ideology.... They hatch plots to ruin our young people."

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