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Iran: UN Helps Combat Drug Problem, But Bureaucracy Could Hinder Effort

  • Bill Samii --> Judiciary head Hashemi-Shahrudi (right) told the UNODC's Costas Iran is a "main path" for drug trafficking (Fars) WASHINGTON, November 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), announced a $22 million contribution to Iran during his November 7-9 visit to that country.

Iran is a global leader in drug seizures, and senior officials frequently decry what they see as insufficient international support and a lack of recognition of their counternarcotics efforts.

Iran's president has called for greater attention to the treatment of addicts, but bureaucratic competition among Iran's numerous drug-control agencies could hinder that country's fight against drugs.

Iranian officials reportedly used Costa's visit to urge UN action to counter increased cultivation of opium poppies in neighboring Afghanistan, according to official Iranian Mashhad radio's November 9 Dari-language newscast.

A number of them complained that Iran's drug-fighting effort gets too little help from the rest of the world.

The leader of Iran's judiciary, Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, called his country "the main path for drug transit from Afghanistan to Europe," Mehr News Agency reported, citing their meeting on November 7. He said international bodies fail to appreciate Iran's role in stopping the drugs and warned that if international assistance is not forthcoming, Tehran will have to reconsider its interdiction efforts.

The same day, a deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, told Costa that UN financial assistance to Iran's antidrug program is negligible, IRNA reported.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad claimed in his discussion with Costa on November 9 that "[certain] arrogant powers are supporting the drugs trafficking and distribution gangs with the intention of harming independent states and nations," IRNA reported.

Sealing The Border

Costa arrived in the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province that borders Pakistan on November 8. After meeting with the Iranian Drug Control Headquarters secretary-general, Fada Hussein Maliki, Costa announced the UN's $22 million contribution to help Iran combat drugs, IRNA reported. He said the funds are intended to strengthen the eastern border against drug traffickers and for intelligence activities by police in that part of the country.

Costa's choice of venues for his announcement was significant. Sistan va Baluchistan Province is bedeviled by smugglers and insurgents. Costa met with Maliki at the Rasul-i Akram base in Zahedan, which was created in April to coordinate the efforts of police, military, and other security agencies.

The base's deputy commander, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Brigadier Qassem Rezai, said in early August that stopping drug smugglers is one of the facility's main activities.

Rezai noted that the base tracks developments in eastern parts of Hormozgan Province, in Kerman Province, in South Khorasan Province, and in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, according to Kerman's "Rudbar Zamin" weekly on August 9. Rezai said steps related to the drug-interdiction effort include blocking a 70-kilometer stretch of the border with Pakistan with a trench that is five meters wide and four meters deep, with electronic monitoring, and with armed patrols. Rezai said forward operating bases have been established in the region, paramilitary (Basij) camps are being set up, and friendly tribes will be used. He stressed that authorities "have strengthened the intelligence system of the region."

Iran's southeast was not always the destination of choice for smugglers. But trafficking routes for drugs originating in Afghanistan have changed. The traditional route was from southern Khorasan to Isfahan, Kerman, Tabas, or Yazd, then up to West Azerbaijan Province into Turkey. This pattern changed with the creation of the Mohammad Rasulallah Central Headquarters in eastern Iran in the early 1990s and affiliated operations by the IRGC. Creation of a national police force in 1993-94 and establishment of the Mersad military base in the southeastern Kerman Province effectively ended use of the traditional route.

The alternatives for traffickers moving drugs from Afghanistan are a northern route through Central Asia to Russia and then the Balkans, or a southern route from Pakistan to Sistan va Baluchistan Province and then to the Sea of Oman and the Persian Gulf.

International Cooperation

Despite Iranian officials' dissatisfaction with the international community's support, the country participates in a number of multilateral counternarcotics programs. During his visit to Iran, UNODC head Costa met with envoys from the mostly Western Mini-Dublin Group.

The Dublin Group comprises the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, and the United States. It is an informal entity that meets to exchange views on counternarcotics, make recommendations on dealing with the problem, and coordinate cooperation between members and partner countries.

Drug control was also discussed at a late-October meeting in Tehran of interior ministers from Economic Cooperation Organization member states (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

Bilateral initiatives are important to Iran as well. In Damascus on November 3, the Iranian police chief offered advice to a Syrian deputy interior minister on using sniffer dogs and computer systems to combat drugs, IRNA reported. The same day in Tehran, the head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters told Azerbaijan's visiting interior minister, Ramil Yusbov, that Iran is ready to share its experience, according to IRNA.

Camps For Addicts

Interdiction is the cornerstone of Iranian activities. But there appears to be a new emphasis on treatment of addicts. Drug-control chief Maliki has announced on October 26 the government's allocation of roughly $14 million to treat addiction, ILNA reported. He noted the creation of drug-information centers and treatment centers in the provinces, calling it the first time that provinces have dealt individually with those issues.

Iranian Drug Control Headquarters Secretary-General Fada Hussein Maliki (Fars file photo)

A total of 17 camps are being established to cure the addicts and methadone programs will be employed, according to the head of the Prisons Organization's health department, Parviz Afshar, quoted by "Hemayat" on August 17.

Addiction is illegal in Iran, and thousands of addicts are imprisoned. The head of prisons in Gilan Province says that one in three of the 4,500 prisoners there is guilty of addiction, trafficking, or related crimes, according to a quote in "Gilan-i Imruz" on August 7. He acknowledged that addicts are resourceful and can get drugs in prison.

A recent government report states that 56 percent of Iranians infected with HIV acquired it from sharing needles when using drugs in prison. The report goes on to say that nearly two-thirds of all HIV cases are drug addicts, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on October 4.

Crystal And Ecstasy

The authorities in Iran must also contend with new forms of drugs entering the country. Lately, there is much focus on a highly concentrated -- and addictive -- form of heroin referred to as "crystal."

Counternarcotics experts believe the substance is smoked, and it is highly addictive because it is so concentrated -- 15 to 20 kilograms of opium are required for 1 kilogram of crystal, while the normal opium-to-heroin ratio tends to be 10:1.

Police in the northern Semnan Province said in early October that they had seized 132 kilograms of crystal in the first six months of the Iranian year, Fars News Agency reported. Seizures of crystal were reported in northeastern Khorasan Province in October, in Tehran in September, and in Kerman Province in August.

Other substances are abused as well, including methamphetamine and club drugs like ecstasy. Major Shahnam Rezai, a public affairs official with the West Azerbaijan Province police, said on October 22 that 400,000 hallucinogenic tablets were seized in the last month, Urumiyeh television reported.

Too Many Agencies?

For more than two decades, the Iranian government concentrated on interdiction as the preferred way to deal with drug abuse. Tehran insisted it was a supply-driven problem. Despite mounting anecdotal evidence, it dismissed suggestions that unemployment and a lack of constructive social outlets might be behind the demand for drugs.

It was only in the final years of President Mohammad Khatami's administration (1997-2005) that a greater proportion of the drug-fighting budget was earmarked for demand reduction.

The creation of new addiction-treatment camps suggests that the Ahmadinejad administration -- after some deliberation -- has decided to continue on that path.

This emphasis on the demand side could help curb Iran's drug problem, as might the United Nations' recently announced financial contribution.

But competition within the Iranian counternarcotics community could hinder success. A deputy national police chief, Colonel Seyyed Hassan Batouli, said recently that 13 organizations are involved in the drug fight, "Mardom Salari" reported on October 5. The state prosecutor-general, Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, noted that each province is conducting its own campaign, Hemayat" reported on October 2.

Resolving those bureaucratic issues could be as important as any funding from the United Nations. But it is unclear whether UNODC chief Costa addressed these problems during his recent trip to Iran.

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