Iran warns of 'drug tsunami' if UN cash for patrols is cut
Published Date: 25 June 2008
By MICHAEL THEODOULOU
EUROPE could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if Iran's war against drug trafficking from Afghanistan is undermined by reduced western support because of the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear programme.
British police estimate 90 per cent of the heroin on UK streets originates in Afghanistan and the British government has often praised Iran's determined efforts to stem the flow.
The UN credits Iran for seizing 80 per cent of the opium netted around the world last year. Over that period, Iran says it seized 900 tonnes of narcotics coming from Afghanistan, where anti-drugs efforts are a responsibility of overstretched British forces in Helmand province.
Statistics suggest the British effort leaves room for improvement. The UN drugs and crime office says Afghanistan's production of opium – the raw material for heroin – increased from 6,100 tonnes in 2006 to 8,200 tonnes in 2007, accounting for 93 per cent of global production. Some Iran watchers detected an implicit warning over enhanced western co-operation with Iran's anti-drugs effort in the wording of a package of technological, political and economic incentives made to Iran by world powers last weekend.
One section refers to "intensified co-operation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan.
The package deal – by the United States, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany – is conditional on Iran suspending uranium enrichment, which the West fears could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Iranian leaders have expressed interest in negotiating aspects of the offer but are adamant that halting uranium enrichment is a "red line" they will never cross.
UN officials believe any link between supporting Iran's counter-narcotics campaign and the nuclear issue would be counter-productive, insisting that the war on drugs should be viewed as a "non-political area of mutual interest".
Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the UN's drugs and crime office, said: "We should definitely assist Iran in this respect." He said a "heroin tsunami" could hit Europe if drug action by Iran was weakened.
Iran's most senior anti-drugs official, Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said: "Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicised. When narcotics reach Europe, people, not governments, suffer."
But a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office in London insisted last night that enhanced co-operation with Iran's anti-drugs effort was not conditional on Tehran accepting the West's deal. "We are keen to increase co-operation on counter-narcotics," she said.
Britain has given funds through the UN to help Iran fight the anti-drugs war. London has also made exceptions to its arms embargo against Iran to donate flak jackets and night-vision gear for Iranian border forces.
But Tehran has long complained it has to shoulder the burden mostly alone, with meagre aid from the international community. Iran has invested millions in blocking trafficking routes from Afghanistan with concrete walls across mountain passes. Trenches have been dug in deserts overlooked by hundreds of watch towers.
The human cost has been higher. Iran has some 30,000 troops on drug patrols in border areas and has lost more than 3,500 law enforcement officers in clashes with armed drug traffickers in the last two decades.
"Co-operating with Iran on this and other issues is not a favour we do for Iran – but something we need to do in our own interest," said Barnett Rubin, a US expert on Afghanistan.
Iran also sees itself as a victim of the West's demand for heroin. By blocking Afghan heroin from reaching Europe, Iran says it suffers a costly spillover effect. Half of the drugs leaving Afghanistan pass through the Islamic Republic, flooding the country with cheap opium and heroin. No drugs are produced in Iran, but it is now believed to have the world's highest rate of heroin and opium addiction.
The UN estimates last year's poppy harvest in Afghanistan was worth £500 million, with a tenth going to the rejuvenated Taleban in taxes – partly to finance battles against the British.
Opium production in Afghanistan has doubled in four years, even though Washington has spent $878 million since 2001 trying to coax Afghan farmers off growing the illegal crop.
Britain valued its co-operation with Iran in the war against drugs as a valuable shared point of interest when relations were improving before the current hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to power three years ago.
The US does not give cash to the UN to support Iran's anti-drug efforts. Unilateral American sanctions are in force.