Iran's rulers battle domestic drug problems

Well-armed traffickers enter from Afghanistan


TEHRAN, Iran -- The problem of illicit drugs is commonly associated with prosperous, liberty-minded societies in Europe and America, not a theocratic state run by some of the Islamic world's most conservative mullahs.

But Iran is slowly discovering that it, too, has a drug problem. It has a drug-smuggling problem. It has a drug violence and kidnapping problem. More and more, it seems, it has a drug-use problem. And increasingly, Iranian authorities have begun to grapple with this problem in the open.

"After the revolution, our leaders thought that the idea of drug use was imported from the West, so it was necessary to protect our society from outside," said Afarin Rahimi, an Iranian who works for the United Nations Drug Control Program, which opened an office in Tehran in June. "Now it's being understood that the problem is a domestic one."

Although Iran's religious rulers were loath for many years to deal with the problem publicly, an increase in the amount of drugs entering the country, growing pressure from the West, and a more liberal government under President Mohammad Khatami have brought the issue to the fore.

Over the past five years, Iranian authorities have stepped up their battle against well-armed smugglers who transport much of the world's illegal supply of opium, heroin and hashish through Iran to markets here and in the West from sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, two decades of war have made the country a haven for drug runners linked to various armed factions.

"The production of illicit drugs in Afghanistan is astonishingly high," said Mohammad Fallah, the director of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, the country's national anti-narcotics bureau. "It flows from the country like water from a tap. We are having greater success in cutting down the flow, but our task is difficult."

That task is harder still because Iran's location and its 1,200-mile eastern border make it the first line of defense against the traffickers, and it has not been an easy line to hold.

About 2,700 Iranian law-enforcement personnel have died in Iran's quiet drug war since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Despite such losses, Iran's reported seizure rates would astound anti-narcotics forces in North America or Europe. Since 1979, authorities say, they have seized more than 1,300 tons of contraband drugs, more than half in the past five years. Indeed, the country now accounts for 85 percent of opium seizures and more than 30 percent of heroin and morphine seizures worldwide.

Increasingly, the smugglers are fighting back. This month, drug traffickers kidnapped four European tourists in southern Iran, in a daring effort to exchange them for jailed comrades, a tactic they used successfully in June and that has escalated their challenge to authorities. The hostages have yet to be released.

The smugglers, mainly drawn from the Baluchi people, a tribal group straddling the Iran-Pakistan border, possess a fearsome arsenal of weapons, many obtained from the Afghan mujahedeen who fought an American-backed war against Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

Authorities say that heavy machine guns mounted on all-terrain vehicles often protect drug convoys, while the traffickers are sometimes armed with rocket-propelled grenades or mortars. Iranian officials say that some groups have shot down Iranian helicopters and warplanes with surface-to-air weapons, including, Fallah says, American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

The United Nations estimates that most of the 3,500 tons of opium produced annually in Afghanistan is exported through Iran; an additional 500 tons originates in Pakistan. Most is smuggled across Iran's eastern border region through arid, inhospitable terrain that provides perfect cover for the traffickers, who employ a wide array of smuggling techniques.

Some vehicles, packed with opium and heroin, are driven across remote border areas at night. "The drivers travel only in darkness, using night-vision goggles to see their way," said Fallah, a former intelligence officer with the Iranian police force.

The traffickers are also known to use methods that do not rely on technology but are nonetheless effective. Fallah described one in which traffickers employ a mother camel that has recently given birth.

"They separate the mother from its young, leaving the baby in Iran but taking the mother to Afghanistan," he said. "They place this female at the head of a camel caravan, each animal loaded down with drugs. The mother will walk night and day, leading the whole caravan, and will not stop until it reaches its young."

Armed traffickers simply monitor the caravan's progress from a safe distance through binoculars. "Even if we intercept the caravan, there is no one to arrest, only camels," he said.

Not all the drugs that enter Iran leave for markets abroad, and the recent opening of the United Nations drug-control office here has served to highlight a growing demand for opium and heroin within Iran itself, particularly among the 70 percent or so of the population that is under 30 and frustrated by Iran's strict social codes and high unemployment. Officials estimate that as many as 1.2 million Iranians may be addicts.

Iran's prisons hold so many drug offenders -- 60 percent of inmates are jailed on drug possession, dealing or trafficking offenses -- that the judiciary has recently quit jailing offenders, opting instead for fines, lashes and long-term treatment at one of about 40 outpatient centers.

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