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Iran: Iran's Drug Problem Goes Beyond Afghan Deluge

Iranian authorities burn drug contraband in June 2004 (epa) WASHINGTON, September 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) called the past year's rise in Afghan opium cultivation "very alarming" when he presented his report to the Afghan government on September 2. Neighboring Iran is the global leader in opium seizures, and the recent rise in opium production is likely to be reflected in higher seizure rates. Iran's drug problem is not merely supply-driven, however, with domestic opium cultivation making a return and the popularity of synthetic drugs on the upswing.

The UNODC reported in 2005 that some 60 percent of the opiates (opium, morphine, and heroin) produced in Afghanistan leave that country via Iran. It makes sense that climbing production figures more recently would be reflected in higher seizure rates. While there are no cumulative data available yet for the year, partial reports nationally and from the provinces support the UNODC contention.

Officials See Problem

The chief of Iran's national police force, General Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, said at the end of August that the seizure of 145 tons of drugs nationwide in the first five months of the Iranian year (which began on March 21) marks a 29-percent increase over the same period last year, IRNA reported on August 29.

Reports from the provinces support the police chief's assertion. The police chief in East Azerbaijan Province, Brigadier Mohammad-Ali Nosrati, said earlier in August that seizures in his area in March-July were up 488 percent, ILNA reported on 31 July and IRNA on 11 August. Heroin seizures topped the list, he said. Nosrati added that the number of arrests for drug dealing had more than doubled (a 132-percent increase).
Iran's state Welfare Organization's prevention and addiction-treatment department claims that 8 percent of the population is addicted to drugs.

Authorities reported increased drug seizures and many arrests in the southwestern Ilam Province and the Western Azerbaijan Province. In both provinces, authorities also reported significant numbers of arrests for smuggling, dealing, and drug abuse -- including a jump of more than 50 percent in Ilam's abuse statistic.

Growing Opium Cultivation

Tehran tends to look at domestic drug abuse as a supply-driven issue that can be addressed mainly through interdiction and law enforcement. But a resurgence of domestic opium cultivation suggests that the problem is more complicated.

Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri-Shirazi, a provincial representative for Iran's supreme leader, warned in early July that forests in southern Fars Province are being converted into opium-poppy farms, "Kayhan" reported on July 2. He did not attempt to explain the phenomenon.

But joblessness and other economic woes -- as well as governmental failures -- were cited earlier this year to explain resurgent opium cultivation in Kohkiluyeh va Boirahmad Province.

...And Other Drugs

Opiates originating in Afghanistan are not the only illicit drugs that Iranians are using. Ecstasy (MDMA) was once smuggled into Iran from Europe, but is now frequently produced locally. Other "club drugs" -- such as GHB, Ketamine, LSD, methamphetamines (crank), and Rohypnol -- also appear to be gaining in popularity.

Sniffer dogs in Semnan Province, east of Tehran, uncovered 24 kilograms of concentrated heroin -- known in Iran as "crystal" -- during two vehicle inspections in Shahrud in late August, the Baztab website reported on August 24.

The head of the Justice Department and local public prosecutor in the northeastern city of Nishabur, Hojatoleslam Abbas Ali Fakhrara, said in late June that young people are increasingly turning to ecstasy and crystal, "Khayyam Nameh" reported on July 13.

Counternarcotics experts speculate that the crystallized heroin is smoked. It is highly addictive because it is also highly 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.

Emphasis On Interdiction

Tehran's emphasis on supply-interdiction versus demand-reduction has undergone changes in recent years. Each approach has its proponents. Initially, the government had a law-and-order approach that considered any drug-related offense a serious crime. Penalties for narcotics trafficking were heavy -- possession of more than 30 grams of heroin or 5 kilograms of opium could result in the death penalty. More than 10,000 narcotics traffickers and drug users have been executed in recent decades in Iran, and hundreds more currently face execution. Addicts were arrested and jailed.

This approach filled prisons, but addiction rates continued to rise as the average age of drug users fell. The strategy changed during the latter years of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's presidency (1997-2005), and an increasing amount of the drug-control budget was shifted to demand-reduction efforts and to treating addicts.

Authorities have also emphasized interrupting the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. They claim millions of dollars were spent on building static defenses along the 1,800-kilometer border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such efforts are continuing. National police chief Ahmadi-Moqaddam said in late July that "Iran intends to close 400 kilometers of its eastern borders" by mid-December (the end of Azar), Fars News Agency reported on July 27. Ahmadi-Moqaddam touted authorities' use of "physical measures and...human resources, [and] electronic and aerial devices."

Within a month, Ahmadi-Moqaddam said 100 kilometers of the southeastern border in Sistan va Baluchistan had been sealed, state radio reported on August 19. He added that work was "progressing fast."

The creation in April in the same province of a base for coordinating police, military, and other security agencies is part of the effort. Rasul-i Akram base's deputy commander, General Qasem Rezai, said in early August that some 100 bulldozers and other heavy equipment are involved with sealing the eastern border, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on August 10. As he listed the number of patrols initiated by the base, as well as the number of arrests and seizures, the deputy commander claimed that while bandits are no longer safe, locals have a greater sense of security.

A parliamentary representative from the southeastern city of Zahedan, Hussein Ali Shahriari, has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the Rasul-i Akram base, "Kargozaran" reported on August 15. Shahriari called it a "major strategic mistake" to believe that a single base could salvage the security situation in the regions. He blamed a lack of police officers, and said much more is required to solve the problem. Shahriari cited poverty and unemployment among the culprits, and said investors fear the risk in the same areas. He lamented that "expecting the government to do something to make the private sector active and create job opportunities and wealth is apparently a vague dream that will never be fulfilled."

Demand Reduction

Iran's state Welfare Organization's prevention and addiction-treatment department claims that 8 percent of the population is addicted to drugs, "Mardom-Salari" reported on June 22. An official in the same department, Mehrdad Ehterami, noted that Iran sees 90,000 new drug addicts every year, with more than 180,000 people treated for addiction in the state or private sector. He listed 51 government facilities, 457 private outpatient centers, and an additional 26 transition centers that exist to combat the problem.

The provincial prosecutor in Ardabil is a critic of existing drug-control policies. Hojatoleslam Rabii argues that the activities of the Drug Control Headquarters and the police are not coordinated, according to "Hemayat" on July 30. He claims legislation is contradictory, with "drug addiction...regarded as a crime" while "addicts are portrayed as patients who must be cured." Rabii contends that attempts to control drug trafficking must be more focused or investment to cure addicts increased. Harsh sentences alone for drug traffickers won't work, he says.

Clearly, the Iranian government recognizes the extent of the drug problem it faces. Still, it does not appear to have decided on a preferred approach. The head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Fada Hussein Maleki, insisted in early August that his organization and the Expediency Council have formulated general counternarcotics policies, and that they have been referred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his approval, "Hemayat" reported on August 2.

Iranian officials no doubt hope that once that happens, they might reverse the current trend of rising drug abuse.