Winning Its Heroin War, Iran Wins Praise of US

Drug-burning today highlights Tehran's stepped-up efforts at Afghanistan border.

Passengers flying out of this remote eastern border area are treated as drug smugglers until proven otherwise.

Every item in every bag is turned out and opened, contents spilling onto well-worn customs tables. Metal skewers are used to pierce cardboard boxes and to search for false bottoms in luggage. Examinations run a rigorous course: Two women were recently stopped at the Zahedan provincial airport carrying 805 grams of heroin in bags in their stomachs.

Never mind the amount of tax-free contraband that most people carry back to the capital, Tehran, from Iran's long and porous eastern border, officials in this lawless region focus on stopping the flow of drugs from the "Golden Crescent" of Afghanistan to the eager markets in Europe. The measures have been effective.

Even Washington has given Iran high marks on this front.

Welcome to Iran's own version of the Wild West, where narcotics officials have been assassinated, where Iranian security forces are locked in battle with sophisticated gangs of smugglers - and where Iran seems to be winning the war.

For anyone who doubts Iran's commitment to curbing this flow of drugs, 50 tons of seized narcotics - less than one-third of Iran's catch last year - are to be publicly burned in Tehran today to cap Drug Control Week.

President Mohamad Khatami will make a first-time appearance at this annual event, along with the chief of the Vienna-based United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), Pino Arlacchi.

The United States government, which still accuses Iran of being the "most active" state sponsor of terrorism, has praised Iran's drug-control efforts - a fact that some say made a "substantial contribution" to the current mood of US-Iran rapprochement.

"These severe antidrug measures have been taken ... in the interest of the consuming, mostly European countries," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told a United Nations drug-control conference in New York earlier this month. Iran's campaign, he said, had turned into "a full-scale war" against smugglers.

Construction of high walls across mountain valleys has closed major routes in the south, and desert areas are etched with impassable canals, barbed-wire fencing, and watch towers. Checkpoints dot every road.

Afghanistan alone accounts for more than half the worldwide opium production of some 5,000 tons - Burma (Myanmar) produces the bulk of the rest - and there is money to be made. Centuries of opium use make Iran one market for as many as 1 million addicts.

There is also money in it for the extreme Islamic Taliban militia. Though the Taliban, which controls two-thirds of Afghanistan, has cracked down on everything from television to drug use in areas under their control, they appear to have sanctioned increased drug production. There is little other source of income for weapons.

The bulk of the drugs travels north through Central Asia toward Turkey and Bulgaria. Some drugs turn again at Turkmenistan to cross into Iran, causing authorities to consider building a set of walls along this portion of the border. Still, Iran "has been extremely successful in blocking" the route through its own borders, says UNDCP spokesman Sandro Tucci.

"We have done a lot to control illicit drugs," says Mohammed Shahrooni, head of narcotics-control efforts in Sistan-Baluchistan province. "I believe that if other countries of the world were as active as we are, and contributed as much as we do, this problem would be eliminated once and for all."

The price for Iran has been high. Daily battles have claimed the lives of more than 2,350 security personnel over 18 years, and Iran spends $400 million each year combating smugglers. Upgrading security on the border, officials say, has already cost $560 million. Some 60 percent of Iran's 140,000 inmates are in for drug-related offenses.

But the "enemy" is ready to fight back, sources here say. In February, a brigadier general known to be in charge of antismuggling efforts in this province was assassinated. In April, the No. 2 in the next province north was killed.

"We believe they are the worst criminals," says Mohammed Ahmadi, a drug control official in Zahedan. "I don't know where they get their weapons, and we are better equipped than them. But they initiate new things, and innovate."

Gun battles have erupted in downtown Zahedan, and one in May left eight people dead. Another skirmish, in which authorities seized 1,534 kilos of drugs, 54 weapons, and 5,000 rounds of ammunition, claimed 22 lives.

Part of the problem, officials say, are the 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Iran who may collaborate with smugglers. "If you belong to an ethnic tribe, and you've been in the business for centuries, even if you are a refugee you will be a natural contact," says an observer who asked not to be named.

"We are surprised and dissatisfied with their acts," confirms Mr. Ahmadi. "We believe that the refugees should be helped, but unfortunately they take this and misuse it."

In some cases refugees have been coerced into helping, and the border camp of Niatak, with nearly 7,000 refugees, may be fenced for their protection.

"This smuggling is purely business," says the source. "The primary objective of the Taliban is to consolidate their power, and they will use anything they have to finance that. They have no oil, just a substance in demand by junkies worldwide."

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