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Afghanistan: Iran Locked In Border War With Drug Smugglers

By Charles Recknagel and William Samii

Afghanistan has become the world's leading exporter of opium, creating a flood of drugs moving through neighboring countries to Western markets. In the second part of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel and regional specialist William Samii look at the impact of the opium smuggling on Iran.

Prague, 21 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Over the last ten years, Iran has lost thousands of troops in a low-level war on its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war is with smugglers moving opium from Afghanistan across Iran to the Gulf states and Europe, where it is refined and sold as heroin.

The battles in this war are fierce. In a single clash late last year, Iran lost 36 soldiers and police to an ambush by heavily armed smugglers. In another single clash, 20 traffickers were killed.

The casualties give some idea of the nature of a border conflict which started as a crackdown some ten years ago on smuggling of drugs across Iran's border with Afghanistan or via Pakistan. The crackdown has since grown into something often resembling a low-level war.

Recently, the governor of Iran's southeastern border province of Sistan-Baluchistan -- where much of the fighting takes place -- said 1,240 security officers have been killed over the last decade in his province alone. Losses for Iran along the full length of the Afghan and Pakistan borders for the same ten years total almost 3,000 soldiers, revolutionary guards, and policemen killed.

The smugglers are well-armed and are reported to use highly sophisticated communications equipment to monitor the movements of Iranian border guards. Drug enforcement officials in Iran have said the smugglers' weaponry goes far beyond simple assault rifles, to include anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft "stinger" missiles. Many of these sophisticated weapons were given by the U.S. to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

The smugglers are also aided by rough terrain and flexibility in transport methods. They travel in armed convoys, sometimes using cars, sometimes camels, sometimes motorcycles.

In an effort to stop them, Iran patrols its border with Afghanistan and Pakistan with some 100,000 troops and members of the revolutionary guards.

But despite the patrols, large quantities of drugs continue to move by force or stealth across the border. The drugs are transported as poorly refined heroin, morphine base, opium and raw opium.

Sandro Tucci, spokesman for the UN Drug Control Program in Vienna, says that it is impossible to calculate the amount of drugs moving across Afghanistan. But he says that drug experts believe Iranian security forces interdict about 17 percent of the traffic. That percentage alone nets quantities of opium-related drugs which dwarf the amounts seized by all other countries in the world taken together.

"Iran confiscates 85 percent of all the drugs confiscated in this world, except for cocaine. [That means that of] all the morphine, opium, and heroin which is produced in the world and which is confiscated in the world, Iran confiscates more than 85 percent."

In provinces bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, seizures of huge hauls of drugs and mass arrests of suspects are frequent. Last month alone, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported over 6,000 kilograms of narcotics seized in Khorasan province bordering Afghanistan and 150 smugglers arrested. In its effort to contain smuggling, Iran has not only used regular army and police but also elite Revolutionary Guards and volunteers of the hardline Basij Resistance Force.

Tucci says that some 60 percent of the drugs coming into Iran move on to Turkey and from there west to the lucrative markets of the Arab Gulf states and Europe. But 40 percent is sent to major trading centers in Iran for domestic consumption. The flood of drugs keeps the price low in Iran and attracts an ever-expanding pool of addicts.

"Faced with increase of trafficking through Iran, you certainly do have, unfortunately, an increase in the number of addicts. We are looking today at about 1.2 million addicts, between opium, heroin and morphine and other rubbish in Iran. Five years ago they were below the 1 million level and now they are 1.2 to 1.25 [million]. They do have a very -- like all transit countries -- they do have a very serious drug addiction problem."

The head of Iran's law enforcement forces, General Mohsen Ansari, said recently that 160 people a day are arrested in Tehran for distributing or selling drugs, and that there are between 150,000 and 180,000 addicts in the capital.

A related problem is the rise in AIDS. Senior Iranian Health Ministry official Dr. Reza Labbaf Qassemi has said that 67 percent of Iran's AIDS victims are drug addicts who acquired the disease through intravascular injection.

Many experts say that young Iranians turn to drugs as a form of escape. Alain Labrousse of the Geopolitical Observatory of Drugs (Observatoire Geopolitiques des Drogues) in Paris says the reasons are both economic and political.

"It seems that the problem [of addiction] is increasing not so [much] for the [availability of] drugs coming from Afghanistan but for the social and political context in Iran. I think it is an escape to use opium or heroin. I think the main causes are economic, social and cultural problems."

Young Iranians are faced with limited job prospects, with an estimated 25 percent unemployment rate and an economy which was hard hit by a slump in world oil prices which only reversed late last year. At the same time, many Iranian youths are reported to be restive under the restrictive social codes of the Islamic Republic.

Tehran, which has no political relations with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, has little leverage over Kabul to crack down on the trade inside Afghanistan. The Taliban forbids Afghans from using heroin or morphine but is reported variously to either ignore the trafficking across its borders or to abet and profit from it.

Meanwhile, the drug war raging in Iran has increasingly become a bone of contention between Tehran and European governments.

Europeans, particularly Britain, have made some contributions to fighting what both sides regard as a common enemy. On a visit to Tehran two months ago, an official of the British Foreign Office, John Kerr, said London has contributed some $1.6 million as part of a UN plan to combat trafficking from Afghanistan. He also pledged to provide Iranian counter-narcotics personnel with bullet-proof vests. At the same time, France has provided highly-trained drug-sniffing dogs to Iran to help detect smuggled drugs.

But Tehran is far from satisfied with this level of Western help. Even after Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi met top British officials in London this month, Iranian state radio commented that the Europeans' sentiments are nice but something more substantial is needed, such as technical and financial assistance to patrol the eastern borders and conduct reconnaissance.

Last year, the conflict inside Iran twice appeared on the verge of dragging in Western governments directly, as the smugglers took Europeans as hostages to barter for jailed drug traffickers. All the hostages -- who were touring Iran -- were released unharmed after protracted negotiations whose terms have not been publicly revealed. The incidents were a blow to Tehran's hopes to boost its fledgling tourism industry.

Tehran is also turning to Russia for support in combating traffickers. Iran's National Security Council secretary, Hasshan Rohani, visited Moscow this month to discuss getting Russian expertise for building a prototype "iron curtain" along the Iran-Afghan border. Initially, the curtain -- equipped with Russian security systems -- would stretch 100 kilometers. If proved successful after 18 months, it could be extended the entire length of the border.

(The third part of the series is an interview with the UN Drug Control Program's representative in Tehran, Antonio Mazzitelli, on Iran's need for assistance in the fight against smuggling.)