Iran Both Fights and Facilitates Narcotics

Garrett Nada

After struggling for decades to combat narcotics, Iran is today both fighting and facilitating narcotics, according to reports by the United Nations, the United States and Iran. Tehran has escalated its campaign against narcotics use and trafficking with help from the United Nations.
At the same time, however, an elite Revolutionary Guards force has reportedly allowed traffickers to smuggle drugs through Iran in exchange for helping Tehran arm Taliban forces fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan. In 2012, the United States sanctioned a senior Revolutionary Guard commander for facilitating drug smuggling that also aided an extremist group.
The Islamic Republic now openly admits having a drug problem that it denied for years. “For a long time nobody wanted to admit it, but drug abuse was ravaging our society…Now the scourge is so bad that we are finally reaching the point where the government is getting really involved,” Abbas Deylamizade, managing director of Rebirth, told The Toronto Globe and Mail in May 2012. Rebirth is Iran’s largest non-governmental organization working on drug treatment.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran claims to have lost some 3,720 security forces fighting drug traffickers, many of whom were heavily armed. Tehran estimates that it spends around $1 billion annually on its war on drugs. In 2009, Iran accounted for 89 percent of worldwide opium seizures and 41 percent of heroin seizures, according to the 2011 U.N. World Drug Report.
Support for Traffickers
But in 2012, the United States revealed inconsistencies in Iran’s public narrative. The U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions in March on General Gholamreza Baghbani, a commander in the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force (IRGC-QF). The Qods Force is the elite military wing charged with overseeing foreign operations.
Baghbani allegedly allowed narcotics traffickers to smuggle opiates from Afghanistan through Iran in exchange for their assistance in delivering weapons across the border to the Taliban in Afghanistan. NATO officials claim the Iranian weapons have been used repeatedly against NATO forces.
“Today’s action exposes IRGC-QF involvement in trafficking narcotics, made doubly reprehensible here because it is done as part of a broader scheme to support terrorism. Treasury will continue exposing narcotics traffickers and terrorist supporters wherever they operate,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen on March 7.
In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee also passed the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012. Congress found that, “Iran has used its proxies in Latin America to raise revenues through illicit activities, including drug and arms trafficking.”
Widespread Drug Use at Home
The Islamic Republic has long struggled to deal with domestic drug use. China has the highest number of opiate abusers in the world, but Iran is second in the percentage of population using opiates, according to the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2012.
The United Nations estimates that the Islamic Republic has some 1.2 million drug addicts. But recreational use is widespread, complicating accurate figures of drug users. Rebirth estimates that Iran may have up to five million addicts, along with millions more occasional users. Young people under the age of 30 have “turned aggressively” to drug abuse, the State Department reported in 2012.
Geography has contributed to the problem. Iran is a major trafficking hub for opiates produced in Afghanistan that are smuggled to Europe and beyond. The United Nations estimates that 5,800 tons of opium were grown in Afghanistan in 2011. A 2011 report by the Stimson Center estimated that almost half of Afghanistan’s opium crossed into Iran, where 15 percent—or some 435 tons—was consumed.
Drug use has in turn dramatically increased the spread of HIV/AIDS. As of mid-2011, drug use was a factor in 70 percent of more than 23,000 registered cases of HIV/AIDS infections in Iran, according to the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2012. The debilitating effects of drugs on Iranian society have forced the government to take a more active role in treatment and so-called harm reduction, an umbrella term for government programs to limit the impact of drug use. Harm reduction includes providing clean needles, methadone (a synthetic opium replacement), and condoms to prevent the spread of HIV from people who got it by sharing needles.
Changing Strategies: From Punishment to Treatment
After the 1979 revolution, the new Islamic government dealt with its drug problem through strict law enforcement and tough penalties. Iran ended treatment programs launched by the monarchy and instead imprisoned users and executed traffickers. But Iran shifted strategies again under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who instituted a treatment-based approach after his election in 1997.
Users now have access to facilities and aid to cope with addiction. The government subsidizes some NGOs and community-based programs, but non-government groups have are now taking the lead. By 2012, only 150 out of the 850 clinics in Iran were government-run. Rebirth, Iran’s largest drug-focused NGO, runs more than 140 drug treatment centers that help 600,000 users, The Globe and Mail reported.
But Iran also still executes drug traffickers. On June 9, 2012, Iran publicly hanged five men for drug trafficking in Shiraz.
Stemming the Flow from Afghanistan
Tehran has reportedly intensified efforts to catch traffickers recently. It has deployed 50,000 border guards along its 1150-mile eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has also spent $1 billion to erect land barriers—such as trenches and barbed wire fences—as well as observation towers and electronic detection equipment since 2005.
Iran claims it seized more than 500 tons of drugs in 2011. Iranian Police Chief Esmail Ahmadi Moqaddam said that security forces had seized 30 percent more narcotics between March and May 2012 than during the same period in 2011.
Narcotics is one issue on which Iran has worked closely with the international community. The United States has even approved licenses to permit American non-government organizations to help on drug issues in Iran. “The Iranian government has taken strong measures against illicit narcotics smuggling, including cooperation with the international community and interdiction of drugs moving into and through its territory,” the State Department said in its 2012 report.
The United Nations also commended Iran for its efforts to cut down on trafficking, attributing the global increase in opium seizures since 2002 primarily to Iran’s efforts. Since 1996, Iran has accounted for more than three quarters of opium seizures worldwide. In 2011, the Iranian Anti-Narcotics Police introduced a new squad of 40 drug-sniffing dogs with U.N. support.
Global Overspill
The crisis extends well beyond Iran’s borders, however. Most opiates processed in Iran, including heroin, have long been sold in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. But they have also recently been seized in Australia and the United States.
In March 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced charges against six Iranians who imported opium from the Afghan border hidden in Persian rugs to the United States for distribution in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The United Nations estimated that there are between 12 and 21 million opiate users worldwide; more than 100,000 people die annually as a result of Afghan opium, making it the deadliest drug in the world.
In 2007, the United Nations brokered the Triangular Initiative among Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to enhance cooperation among the countries in fighting drug trafficking. But the joint planning cell in Tehran launched only 12 joint operations between 2009 and 2011. On November 28, 2011, Yuri Fedotov, Executive Director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime warned that, “Much more needs to be done.” Joint patrols, he advised, should become “routine, not exceptional events.”
Garrett Nada recently graduated from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with an MA in Middle East Studies.