Iran's Brutal War on Drugs

Up until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, opium smoking was an accepted if not completely respectable part of Iranian life. Many homes had "smoking" rooms and a good number of Iranians of all classes quietly enjoyed the enthralling pleasures of the poppy. But things changed with the arrival of the mullahs, and for the past two decades the Islamic Republic has waged an ever-escalating war on the opium traffic and its own opiate users.

The struggle is not merely a manifestation of Islamic puritanism. Neighboring Afghanistan, with its rural economy shattered by years of superpower struggles followed by civil war, emerged in the 1990s as the world's largest opium producer. While Iranian opium production, never high, declined to negligible levels, Afghani opium destined for the labs of Turkey and thence on to the end users of Europe flooded across Iran -- the most direct route to market. To cause Iranian authorities even more concern, two developments ensued: Afghani smugglers began refining heroin in-country, so it too joined the flood of opium, and an ever-larger portion of the traffic was feeding a growing army of domestic drug users, who complemented their fondness for opium with a quickly developing appreciation for the new-fangled stuff.

After twenty years of anti-opium efforts, the numbers are staggering: The Iranian government says more than 3,100 police and soldiers have been killed, along with more than 10,000 traffickers. Almost 200 soldiers and 800 traffickers were killed last year alone. Iran has spent nearly a billion dollars constructing a series of military outposts, walls, towers, roads and barriers along its 1,100 mile-long border with Afghanistan, a harsh and brutal terrain of deserts and mountains, and 30,000 troops are assigned to fight the drug trade. In the 1990s, Iranian authorities seized more than 1.7 million kilograms of drugs -- mostly opium and heroin -- according to the United Nations Drug Control Program, while the annual haul in recent years has averaged about 200 tons of opium and six tons of heroin.

The mullahs and the Revolutionary Courts have also given Iranian drug users a taste of their tender mercies. Drug possession, sales and trafficking are punished harshly, with penalties ranging from fines to lashings to imprisonment. (The US State Department, in its annual report on the drug trade, notes with approval that use of the lash has decreased in the past two years.) Possession of 30 grams of heroin or five kilos of opium can earn the death penalty, and Iranian courts have not been shy about exercising it, putting Iran in such fine company as China, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. The UNDCP estimated that Iran executed 130 drug offenders in the first half of last year, and Iranian officials say 800 more are on death row now.

Mohammed-Azam Teimouri hopes he doesn't join them. Interviewed by the Seattle Times in the Mashad Central Prison, where he awaits sentencing after being caught a year ago smuggling seven kilos of opium from Afghanistan, Teimouri said he was an impoverished farmer only trying to provide for his family. "I used to be a shepherd, a farmer, making my own living," he said. "Then there was the drought and I had nothing to feed my family. I was hungry, my children were hungry. A year ago a man, a rich Talibani, came and told me to take this to Iran. If only we could grow wheat and barley because this opium is a plague upon us in Afghanistan and a plague here in Iran, too."

He was promised $190 to deliver the drugs just across the border, he said. Teimouri is only one of thousands of Afghanis driven by poverty and drought to risk the wrath of the mullahs. That number should only increase as a Taliban decree this year effectively wiped out the Afghani opium crop, leaving an estimated 200,000 opium-growing families without income. Stockpiles of opium from previous bumper crops, however, continue to flood into Iran, according to Iranian and US officials, and weekly gun battles with smugglers continue.

Iranian prisons are stuffed with opium-smokers and heroin-injectors; along with smugglers, they make up 70% of the nation's 150,000 prisoners. From March 2000 to March of this year, Iran reports having arrested 227,000 people on drug charges. Of those, only 5,000 were drug smugglers, the rest domestic users and sellers.

Not that it has done much good. The price of heroin is at an all-time low, with a single dose costing about 40 cents, the same as a glass of milk. At a June conference in Teheran, Iranian experts put the number of regular drug users or addicts at 2.5 million, with the number of occasional drug users numbering as many as 5 million more, out of a population of roughly 75 million.

A year ago this week, in a move hailed as demonstrating a sign of liberalization in Iran under reformist President Mohammed Khatami, Iranian officials first publicly acknowledged the reality of widespread drug use, but the official response has been anything but liberal.

"Five tons of narcotics are consumed in Teheran every day. Official reports suggest there are at least two million addicts. Some 100,000 addicts are in prison. Addiction to narcotics has even reached the school classes," admitted Mohammed Ali Tam, the Teheran municipal official in charge of cultural affairs in a report released in July 2000.

The response has been to intensify the struggle. Mohammed Fallah, Iran's drug czar, this year began a program of arming and training thousands of village Basij, or religious police, to help combat trafficking. Through a program of intimidation and reward, the militias have spread along the border with Afghanistan. The UNDCP and some European countries have provided assistance to the anti-smuggling effort as well in recent years. The UNDCP opened a country office in Teheran in June 1999, and has budgeted $12.7 million for a drug control program. Britain, France and Germany have provided assistance in material, including such items as night-vision goggles for anti-drug troops, but other European countries have found Iran's reliance on the death penalty distasteful.

In February, the drug war took a dramatic new turn when Teheran police demolished one of the city's neighborhoods, known as "The Island," for its open drug business. Beginning at 1:00am, some 1,500 police swept down on the neighborhood, arresting 500 "serious" criminals and 1,500 low-level dealers, and razing 130 homes. Now, the neighborhood is an unbroken plain of rubble. The drug dealers simply moved a few blocks away, however, according to neighbors.

A month later, in a sign of the new toughness, executioners hanged five of those arrested in the raid in a public ceremony on the east edge of the capital. As the four men and one woman dangled from cranes, their legs kicking, a crowd of 200 shouted "God is Great," the Irish Times reported. Public executions are unusual in Teheran, the newspaper noted.

But all of that was only a prelude. In an operation beginning on June 26, the UNDCP's international anti-drug day, Iranian police, soldiers, and Revolutionary Guards have arrested 11,892 drug users, dealers, and smugglers, according to the Iran's official news agency, IRNA. They killed 11 traffickers in shootouts, IRNA reported, and seized a ton of drugs.

The day after the operation began, drug czar Fallah and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahrudi, Iran's top judge, vowed no respite in the struggle, and no quarter, according to IRNA. "Drug traffickers and sellers must no longer benefit from any amnesty," thundered the cleric. "On the contrary, they must be severely repressed." Fallah also sounded the tocsin. "The drug problem has become a national crisis in Iran," he warned.

So has trying to enforce prohibition. In an article published this spring in Payame Emrooz, an Iranian economic and cultural journal, researcher Kamal Aqaie wrote that the country's drug war spending was out of control. According to Aqaie's estimates, 30% of the country's security budget, 60% of its prison budget and 70% of Revolutionary Court activities are devoted to fighting the drug traffic.

There are only the faintest of signs of change on the horizon. As the massive anti-drug sweep got underway, a Teheran daily newspaper, the Iran News, called for the country to develop a treatment strategy rather than a policy of only strict punishment. "Our prisons are full of addicts," the paper noted. The News also called for needle-exchange programs to stop the spread of AIDS, which the paper said was spread in Iran primarily by shared needles. "The general practice in most countries is to distribute free hypodermic needles and syringes," it said. "We must undertake a similar practice, as well."

But even such small steps remain a distant vision in Iran.

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