Quick, what country has the highest percentage of heroin addicts? Bonus question: what country has the youngest population?
Hint: It's currently in the midst of a slow-motion revolution. Or not.
While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his loyal Republican Guard are violently suppressing the revived Green Movement opposition in Iran's cities, the most serious, and violent, opposition to the regime can be found far to the south, in Sistan-Baluchistan province, where Sunni separatists, in the form the militant Jundullah, a terror group, fights to establish a unified and independent Baluchistan.
The Baluch, unlike the Greens, do not eschew violence. Jundullah has carried out bombings and paramilitary attacks on Iranian forces and could well use growing unpopularity of Ahmadinejad to foment more. They have on their side the power of resentment that comes from being a minority in the largely Shia country. Some defense analysts claim they have the backing of elements in the Pakistani government.
And they have money. Lots and lots of money.
A deeply religious society, Iran has a hard time facing up to what it sees as the moral failings of its population. Witness Mr. Ahmadinejad's absurd proclamation that there are no homosexuals within his borders. The same willful blindness applies to the country's heroin problem. The highest estimates place the number of users at three million, one out of every 20 people.
Traditionally, opium has been smoked or chewed in its largely unrefined forms for centuries along the Silk Road, and Persia has not been exempt. Since the fall of the drug-repressing Taliban in Afghanistan, however, the use of injectable and smokable heroin has boomed in Iran, enriching the separatist Baluch, sparking a frightening upswing in H.I.V. and making addiction a problem rampant among the more than 50% of Iranians between the ages of 15 and 46.
While we watch in rapt wonder at the incredible courage, solidarity and determination of the politically active young people in Tehran and Tabriz, it is easy to forget just how fragile revolutionary movements can be. National divisions can quickly be erased in the face of existential threats like (idiotic, jingoistic American Republican) foreign challenges or well-funded, determined domestic terrorists.
It's also easy to lose sight of how debilitating widespread drug addiction can be to revolutionary movements. In the United States, the antiwar and anticonsumerist Left of the late 1960s was certainly wounded by the FBI's Cointelpro program and other "law-enforcement" efforts, but also by the incursion of speed and cocaine into communities whose erstwhile diversions of choice had been principally non-addictive marijuana and LSD.
Any discussion of the political and cultural future of Iran that doesn't take into account the huge role refined heroin is playing in the country cannot be considered complete. My own ignorance on these matters is profound, and I welcome enlightenment by more knowledgeable people.
BBC--Tackling Iran's heroin habit
Le Monde Diplomatique--Iran loses its drugs war
Telegraph--In President Ahmadinejad's hometown in Iran, hope goes up in opium smoke
Defense Update--Ethnic Opposition on the rise in Iran
Slate--Iran's Baby Boom
December 28, 2009
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Green v. White: Heroin Addiction in Iran