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Afghanistan's Role in Iran's Drug Problem

Author: Lionel Beehner
September 14, 2006

Introduction

The recent boom in Afghan opium production, propelled by a resurgent Taliban, has had an increasing impact on Iranians—both young and old—across the border. Iran has an estimated 3 million drug users and “by many accounts, the world’s worst heroin problem,” says Peter Reuter, a drug expert and professor at the University of Maryland. The rise in drug use and smuggling has strained Iran’s police forces and prisons, as well as its economy, and aggravated rifts along the population’s main fault lines: young versus old, religious versus secular, modernist versus traditional. Drug abuse in Iran often gets overshadowed by other issues—namely Tehran’s nuclear program—but experts say, if left unchecked, it may leave Iran with large social, demographic, and health problems for generations.

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What is the status of opium production in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has long been the world’s leading producer of opium, accounting for 89 percent of total global production. Despite falling in 2005 for the first time in four years—mirroring worldwide trends—Afghanistan’s opium production crept upward in unruly southern provinces like Kandahar (from roughly 12,000 acres in 2004 to 32,000 acres in 2005). This was partly due to the resurgent Taliban, which boosted cultivation levels even higher in early 2006. “Everybody was taken aback,” Reuter says of the recent spike in production. Experts say farmers are rebuilding their inventory from 2000-2001, when the Taliban, then in control of Afghanistan, imposed a brief moratorium on production (but not on opium exports). The ban resulted in a huge collapse in total world output of opium. “Stockpiles were way down and prices remained high by historic standards,” he says. Afghanistan’s opium trade—the majority of it routed through Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan—has since blossomed. The head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, presenting his findings to the Afghan government in early September, called the trend “very alarming.”  

How has Afghanistan’s rise in opium production affected Iran?

The UNODC estimates 60 percent of Afghanistan’s opium is trafficked across Iran’s border (much of it in transit to Europe). Seizures of the narcotic by Iranian authorities in the first half of this year are up 29 percent from the same period last year, according to the country’s police chief, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Experts say the rise in poppy cultivation in Afghanistan will have some effect on Iran’s opium prices but not a significant one. The Washington Post reports that Iran has the world’s highest per capita number of opium addicts. After the Bam earthquake in 2003, among the emergency supplies brought in was methadone, a synthetic drug used to treat heroin and morphine addicts. Experts say those affected most are the millions of unemployed Iranians and youth chafing under the restrictions placed on them from the Islamic government and basij, or civilian morals police.

Has drug use contributed to a rise in HIV/AIDS in Iran?

Yes. The Washington Post reported last July a 25 percent HIV infection rate among heroin users in Iran. Of the estimated 20,000 Iranians with HIV/AIDS, two-thirds of them were infected through sharing contaminated needles, reports the UNODC. In Iran, talk of sex, drugs, and AIDS has remained taboo for two decades. But there are signs of progress, experts say. As reported cases of HIV/AIDS became more prevalent in Iran, especially during the latter years of President Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), the government took steps to counter the spread of the disease. A reformist, Khatami allocated more monies to drug treatment plans, increased subsidies for needle-exchange programs, and sponsored methadone centers. It is also now forbidden for doctors to turn away HIV-infected patients.

How has Iran’s poor economy affected drug use?

Unemployment in Iran is somewhere between 11 percent (the official level) and 25 percent (the estimate given by some outside economists). One in four Iranians lives in poverty, despite high oil prices. Experts say because of these dire economic conditions—particularly among those under thirty, who comprise 70 percent of Iran’s population—people turn to drugs. “This grievance combines with general boredom and a lack of options,” writes Bill Samii of RFE/RL in the Brown Journal of World Affairs(PDF). A government poll shows almost 80 percent of Iranians detect a direct link between unemployment and drug addiction, reports the Washington Post. Further, according to the UK-based Beckley Foundation, because of Iran's poor economy "[t]here has been a rise in internal migration, urbanization, crime, and social problems, providing a breeding ground (PDF) for the development and spread of drug problems."

Which addictive drugs pose the biggest problem in Iran?

Opium has long been the narcotic of choice among Iranians. “At least parts of the [Iranian] population have always used opium the way the West uses alcohol,” says Francisco Thoumi, economics professor and expert on the global drug trade at the Bogotá-based Universidad Del Rosario. When opium prices soared after the Taliban cut poppy production in 2000, many Iranian drug users switched to heroin, a slightly cheaper derivative. The increase in heroin use also reflects the government’s clampdown on drugs. “As countries get tougher on drugs, there’s an increased incentive to use heroin because it’s less conspicuous and more highly concentrated,” Reuter says. RFE/RL's Samii, who has written extensively about drug abuse in Iran, reports that young Iranians, restricted from drinking alcohol in pubs, are increasingly switching to synthetic “club drugs” like methamphetamines (crank) and LSD, in addition to cannabis, ecstasy, and crystal (concentrated heroin). Iran’s state welfare organization tells RFE/RL that an estimated 8 percent of the adult population is addicted to drugs, with 90,000 Iranians becoming drug addicts—most of them hooked on heroin or opium—each year. “Drugs are symptomatic of a people’s social problems,” Thoumi says, “[In Iran] it’s a conflict between pre-modern and modern Iranians.”

How has the Iranian government responded to the drug crisis?

Originally, government authorities, not unlike America’s drug czars in the 1980s, mainly addressed the supply side of Iran’s drug problem. Law-and-order policies with zero tolerance led to the arrest of tens of thousands of addicts and the execution of thousands of narcotics traffickers. “Iran is the only country I know of that had a similar rate of imprisonment for drug users as America,” Reuter says. There are an estimated 68,000 Iranians imprisoned for drug trafficking and another 32,000 for drug addiction (out of a total prison population of 170,000, based on 2001 statistics), according to RFE/RL’s Samii. Tehran also has spent millions of dollars and deployed thousands of troops to secure its porous 1,000-mile border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Experts say a few hundred Iranian drug police die each year in battles with smugglers. “You have drug groups like guerrilla forces,” the head of Iran’s UNODC office, Roberto Arbitrio, told the Times of London last year. “They shoot heavily with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, and Kalashnikovs.” Under Khatami, the government’s attitude on drugs changed and more emphasis was placed on prevention and addiction-treatment programs. Yet since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative hard-liner, came to power last year, Samii says Iran’s drug policy has been reconsidered and shifted back toward supply interdiction and boosting border security. 

What international efforts has Iran pursued to address its drug problem?

The bulk of the country’s drug control and interdiction efforts are conducted between the Drug Control Headquarters and the Interior Ministry. However, because Iran lies on a popular transit corridor between opium producers in Afghanistan and opium consumers in Europe, the country faces added pressure to secure its borders and seize more incoming drug shipments. European countries like France, Spain, and Britain have provided some financial support, as well as counter-narcotics equipment like drug-sniffing dogs, but Iranians complain it is not enough. “Iranians repeatedly complain they are at the forefront of the battle on narcotics traffickers and they’re the ones whose young people are druggies,” Samii says. Iran has counter-narcotics agreements with several European, Asian, and Central Asian states. In addition, Tehran participates in a number of multilateral agencies involved in controlling drug abuse, including the Drug Control Coordination Unit of the Economic Cooperation Organization and the 6+2 group (comprising six Central Asian states plus Russia and the United States). Iran is a party to two UN treaties aimed at counter narcotics.

What steps has Washington taken to curb opium production in Afghanistan?

According to the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which laid out Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction plan, Britain was put in charge of opium eradication. In addition, the United States has provided the Afghan government with public-information campaigns, $135 million per year in financial aid for farmers to grow alternate crops, and technical assistance with eradication programs. In August, a group of Colombian police officers visited Afghanistan on a tour organized by Henry J. Hyde (R-IL), chair of the House International Relations Committee. Hyde has been critical of the Pentagon’s eradication efforts and favors more attacks against drug kingpins, production labs, and trafficking routes.The head of UNODC has also pushed for “robust military action” from NATO forces to take out poppy farms but NATO has resisted such a role.

A new report by the Senlis Council, a Europe-based think tank, cautions against mixing counter-narcotics campaigns with military counterterrorism operations. The report finds that poverty drives Afghan farmers to cultivate poppies. "By focusing aid funds away from development and poverty relief, failed counter-narcotics policies have hijacked the international community's nation-building efforts and undermined Afghanistan's democratically elected government,” the report concludes. U.S.eradication efforts have increased skepticism among local Afghans of Kabul’s ability to administer and provide poverty relief for its far-flung provinces and thereby driven many Afghans to support the Taliban. Thoumi agrees with this assessment. “The factors that lead to production [of opium] are very much structural, institutional, and cultural,” he says. “Countries that produce plant-based drugs are those with deep unresolved social problems and central states with no control of their territories.”

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