Iran, which is waging a costly but little-reported war against heavily armed drug traffickers from neighboring Afghanistan, is taking credit for a dramatic 30 percent fall in the amount of heroin reaching Europe. But the Islamic Republic feels it has been left to bear the burden alone.
"We have spent more on taking United Nations officials up to the border with Afghanistan than the UN has given us," said Iran's drug czar, Gen. Mohammed Fallah, in a rare interview with a Western newspaper.
That is expected to change when the UN's drug-control program, the UNDCP, opens an office in Tehran this month. It will be headed by Michael von der Schulenburg, a German diplomat who has spent 12 years in Iran and who says the country is doing an "excellent job" in helping to stem the flow of narcotics to the West.
Aid from the West
Iran's efforts were acknowledged last year by Washington, which removed the Islamic Republic from its list of drug-producing countries. And London, which estimates that 90 percent of the heroin sold in Britain originates from Afghanistan, has contributed more than $3 million through the United Nations in the past three years.
"It is important that the West financially supports Iran's antidrugs drive. A dollar invested in fighting drugs trafficking here will go a lot further that a dollar invested in European destinations," Mr. Schulenburg says.
Fiercely proud, Iran has rarely requested help from the outside world. That it is now prepared to do so is both a sign of newfound pragmatism and the scale of the problem it faces. "Iran realizes it can't cope with this alone," says a European diplomat in Tehran. "Any money it receives will not be seen as aid but as a cooperation with a UN agency."
Iran says its drug war is set to escalate now that the extremist Taliban militia has conquered most of Afghanistan, which accounts for more than half the worldwide production of opium, the raw material for heroin. "They believe to take over the whole country they need a lot of money and drugs is the only way to get it," says General Fallah.
Iran spends an estimated $400 million a year combating smuggling, some of which is offset by assets confiscated from convicted traffickers. But the human cost is greater. Some 30,000 Iranian troops are on drug patrol along the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than 2,500 have been lost since 1983 in firefights with traffickers.
But, Fallah says, "In 1997, we seized 22 tons of morphine and heroin, and 162 tons of opium. That meant there was a 30 percent decrease in heroin seizures in Europe. These are Interpol's figures, not ours."
Above even the financial burden and loss of life among the security forces, Iran says soaring drug abuse at home is the greatest price it is paying for its war against traffickers. Iran has 1.2 million drug addicts, compared with half a million six years ago.
River of drugs
"The flow of drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan is like a river," Fallah says. "You can either let a river flow, or block its way. If you block it, then the spillover comes into your country. It is us who are suffering the pollution. If we turned our eyes and let the drugs flow to Europe, you'd see we wouldn't have such an addiction problem here."
Foreign diplomats sympathize with this view but say it ignores some of Iran's own social problems. "There is high unemployment and a lot of disaffection among young people," says an Asian diplomat.
Many addicts finance their habit by dealing or thieving, and what was once a relatively crime-free society has become far less secure in recent years.
Until this year in Iran, addicts were prosecuted along with traffickers. Now addicts who volunteer to be treated are not prosecuted, and rehabilitation centers are packed.
Doctors at one clinic in central Tehran have treated 6,000 addicts since opening earlier this year. In a crowded corridor, Hossein, a razor-thin father of three, was determined to kick a 12-year-old heroin habit. "It won't be easy," he says. "Our society is awash with drugs. It's easier to find heroin than meat in the market."