By Andrew Houk – Lying between Afghanistan and its major drug markets to the West, Iran has become a key player in global counternarcotics efforts. In the second in a series of spotlights on Iran-Afghanistan relations, we look at the impact of illicit drugs in Iran, and its efforts to contain their reach at home and abroad.
The source of Iran’s drug problem remains beyond its control. Afghanistan alone produces 89 percent of the world’s opium. The sap extract from poppy bulbs can be consumed at multiple levels of processing: raw, refined, or in chemically altered forms such as morphine and heroin. Afghanistan is also the world’s leading producer of cannabis resin and is reportedly beginning to produce synthetic drugs such as Methamphetamine.
Iran faces a constant stream of smugglers from Afghanistan and its contiguous neighbors. Almost half of Afghanistan’s opiates cross into Iran, about 15 percent of which is absorbed by Iranian abusers, ranging in numbers from 1 – 4 million. With a population of 76 million, Iran follows only Russia in heroin consumption per capita. However, when considering Iran’s consumption of nearly half the world’s raw opium, it is the global leader opiate abuse.
The National Drug Control Headquarters of Iran (DCHQ) has declared drug addiction to be the “largest social harm and a major threat for the national health and security” as well as the main “hurdle” for development. For drug abusers, opiates are highly addictive and overdose-prone, especially for heroin. Producers, traffickers, and corrupted officials also become dependent on the trade’s lucrative profits. Society must also sustain the effects of related contagions such as HIV and Tuberculosis as well as poor governance, organized crime, and sustained insurgencies. These trends are poised to worsen as amphetamine-group drugs gain traction in the region.
Drug abuse facilitates behaviors that spread commutable diseases, especially between intravenous drug abusers. The number of individuals infected with HIV in Iran has doubled since 2001 to about 91,000 according to UNAID estimates. Of reported cases of HIV in Iran, 70% are believed to be transmitted by dirty syringes. Without intervention, there is a significant public health risk as drug abusers interact with society, especially family, sex workers, or inmates; drug related offenses account for half of Iran’s prison sentences.
Since 2005, lowering the supply and demand of illicit drugs in Iran has been a concentrated national effort.
To reduce the supply of drugs seeping from its eastern borders, Iran has deployed 50,000 Revolutionary Guard border agents and invested about $1 billion in land barriers. Securing its borders will remain difficult; its Afghanistan-Pakistan border spans 1,845 km and another 1,892 km when including Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea. Often using motorized or animal caravans, smugglers can be heavily armed and dangerous. Iran reports that since 1979, 3,700 Iranian border agents have been killed and 12,000 wounded in the line of duty.
Captured drug smugglers are dealt with harshly. In 2010 Iran reportedly hanged 179 smugglers and another 65 in the first month of 2011 according to an AFP count from media reports.
On the demand side of the problem, Iran has gone beyond incarceration to include prevention and treatment programs. In the last five years, Iran has doubled the number of public awareness and addiction prevention campaigns implemented in schools, workplaces, and homes.
For existing addicts, Iran has gradually adopted “Harm Reduction” programs in its prison systems and some cities. There are now about 850 clinics in Iran (150 government-run). Currently, about a quarter of Iran’s known intravenous drug abusers receive methadone treatments. To respond to the spread of blood-borne and sexually transmitted infections, clinics also provide clean syringes, razors, condoms, and counseling.’
Iran’s counternarcotics strategy has demonstrated some effectiveness, yet the challenges remain daunting. In 2009 the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), credited Iran with “holding back a flood of heroin.” – Iran alone is responsible for nearly a quarter of global heroin seizures and 60 percent of all opiates. In 2010, UNAIDS praised Iran’s prison Harm Reduction programs as an ‘evidence-based approach marked by tolerance, pragmatism and compassion.’
Greater international cooperation is a priority for Iran’s strategy in 2011. In recent years, Iran has regularly attended and hosted international seminars and workshops such as the Paris Pact Initiative, a UNODC South Asia coalition. Since 2009, the UN-sponsored and Tehran-coordinated “Triangular Initiative” conducted six joint operations between Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, seizing 2,500 kg of illicit drugs and arresting 74 traffickers. Overall success may depend on many factors, not the least of which is its ability to work with its neighbors and solicit more support from the international community.
Iran’s response to illicit drug trafficking and abuse underscores two enduring facts. First, the production and abuse of illicit drugs in Afghanistan are likely to continue to haunt the region and hinder development. Second, Iran can be expected to be a key player in any sustainable solution, as both a victim and an innovative contributor in regional and international counter narcotic efforts.
Photo Credit: “Opium Bokeh” by Evan Leeson, 2006 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecstaticist/2824544386/)
 Performance of the DCHQ in the Fourth Development Plan: 2004-2009.
 UNAIDS Iran Progress Report, 2010.
 Drug Control Report 2009, DCHQ.