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Iran: Iran Fights Lonely War Against Drugs

Media Awareness ProjectSource: Detroit News

Thu, 20 Apr 2000

Iran: Iran Fights Lonely War Against Drugs

By John Daniszewski / Los Angeles Times

IRAN FIGHTS LONELY WAR AGAINST DRUGSIt Captures And Destroys Tons Of Opium Before It Can Reach The West

SORKHE KALAT, Iran — A war is being waged on the barren wastelands of eastern Iran, but few outside this country are aware of it.

On one side are the forces of the Islamic Republic, in their kelly green uniforms, baseball caps and military boots, flying ancient U.S.-made Huey helicopters or hunkered down in newly built versions of medieval fortresses.

Marshaled against them is a criminal enemy — clever, ruthless and formidably armed — made up of Afghani and Pakistani drug smugglers and their Iranian accomplices.

The criminals are intent on getting hundreds of tons of opium and heroin that are produced each year in Afghanistan safely to the desert interior of Iran, to be sold for local consumption or shipped to Turkey and Western Europe. The Iranian forces are trying to staunch the flow of drugs across their border, as a matter of religious duty and of self-interest for the Islamic government, which is vexed by signs that many bored, underemployed young people are falling into the grips of a drug epidemic.

But closing the border to traffickers is a daunting task; there are more than 1,100 miles of unpopulated, unforgiving frontier with Afghanistan and Pakistan to defend. The region is among the most brutal terrains on Earth, a melange of craggy mountains and parched desert, where temperatures can range from below freezing in the winter to well over 120 degrees in summer.

On this harsh tableau, on any given day the smugglers may kill the Iranians or the Iranians may kill the smugglers. This nation has lost more than 2,500 police officers and soldiers in the war against drug traffickers during the last 15 years, from police privates to army generals whose helicopters were shot down with Stinger missiles. More than 100 died in 1999, including 36 police officers captured in an incident in November by traffickers and executed after being tortured.

No one knows how many smugglers have died. But Iran’s prisons are bulging with the 9,000 or so apprehended since the early 1980s.

To give an example of the scale of the struggle, according to the UN:

* Each year the Iranians seize 90 percent of all opium confiscated worldwide by law enforcement agencies, and 10 percent of all heroin.

* The drugs seized by the Islamic Republic represent vast potential wealth. The Iranians say they have stopped 3 million pounds over the last two decades. The 77,000 pounds of seized uncut heroin alone — at more than $90,000 a pound — would sell on the street for about $7 billion. The Iranians destroy it in bonfires.

* Iran has deployed 30,000 police officers along its border and mounted a massive construction effort — including earthen barriers, concrete walls, barbed-wire fences and deep trenches — in an effort to dam the flow of drugs.

The problem is so acute for Iran because its neighbor, Afghanistan, accounts for three-quarters of the world’s annual production of opium, a crop that last year was estimated at a record 4,600 tons. Experts say the Taliban, the extremist Sunni Muslim movement that has conquered most of Afghanistan, uses the drug trade as a funding source. Ninety percent of the heroin consumed in Europe comes from Afghanistan, and U.S. officials fear more of it is crossing the Atlantic to North America.

MAP posted-by: Greg