High times for Iranian drugs mafia
By Matthew C DuPee and Ahmad Waheed
Southwest Asia's robust illicit-narcotics industry is usually associated with
Afghanistan, a narco-producing empire responsible for supplying 90% of the
global supply of illegal opiates.
Additionally, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently
crowned Afghanistan the largest global producer of cannabis resin (hashish) -
with overall production ranging between an astounding 1,500 to 3,000 tons of
hashish per annum.
However, the spillover effect from Afghanistan's booming drug industry is
having a profound impact on Afghanistan's regional
neighbors. Iran is emerging as an even more critical component in the region's
drug-smuggling infrastructure, and while drug trafficking through Iran from
Afghanistan and onto routes destined for Europe is nothing new, Iranian
trafficking syndicates are now responsible for smuggling a large amount of
crystal methamphetamine and liquid varieties of the drug into points further
east, such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.
According to new statistics issued by Thailand's Narcotics Suppression Bureau
(NSB), Iranian nationals traveling to Bangkok (via Suvarnabhumi Airport) top
the police watch list as the most prolific trafficking risk among international
visitors entering the country. So far this year, NSB personnel have arrested 75
Iranian nationals carrying a total of 164 kilograms of methamphetamine, with
the average drug courier carrying between 3 to 5.7 kilograms of narcotics.
NSB authorities also say that Iran is the number-one supplier of crystal meth
and liquid forms of the drug to Thailand; while amphetamine tabs (known locally
as ya baa) are still exclusively imported from Myanmar. Crystal meth is
the second-most widely abused narcotic in Thailand after ya baa tablets.
Iranian smugglers routinely use a circuit of 15 non-direct air-travel routes
out of Tehran, using transit points such as Syria, Turkey, Qatar and the United
Arab Emirates, before landing in Thailand. Those smugglers who fly direct from
Tehran to Thailand mostly fly via Mahan Air, a private airline based in Tehran,
according to NSB authorities.
The commander of Iran's anti-narcotics agency, General Hamid Reza
Hossein-Abadi, supported Thailand's assertions, telling reporters the seizure
of synthetic drugs in Iran has surged over the past 10 months. According to
Hossein-Abadi, Iranian law-enforcement authorities seized 268 tons of
narcotics, including 16.8 tons of condensed heroin, a regional specific variant
of smokeable heroin known locally as "crack". The seizure of condensed heroin
is up drastically from the 6.8 tons of crack seized during the same period last
year. Alarmingly, Hossein-Abadi indicated authorities seized 925 kilograms of
methamphetamines over the past nine months, 320 kilograms of which had been
seized in Iran's airports.
According to Iranian authorities, shisheh ("glass" in Farsi, a slang
term locally for crystal meth) processing workshops are springing up across the
country and counter-drug operations are increasingly seizing multi-kilogram
quantities of shisheh on Iranian railways destined for Turkey and Syria.
From here, smugglers are flying the highly potent and dangerous drugs further
east into Asia where consumption of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) remains
acute. So far, Iranian production of crystal meth outweighs the domestic
demand, so smugglers are penetrating markets further east and suspected of
funneling the crystal meth through traditional smuggling routes destined for
Globally speaking, the demand for ATS is increasing and areas producing these
drugs are expanding. According to United Nations statistics, the number of
people who have consumed ATS at least once within a 12-month time frame exceeds
the number of people who have consumed cocaine and heroin combined.
According to the latest UNODC report on global ATS production and consumption,
it is estimated that between 3.4 million and 20.7 million people in East Asia
have used amphetamines in the past year. Many countries in this region also
reported that ATS have become the primary drug threat, usurping traditional
drugs of choice such as heroin, opiates or cannabis. Production capabilities
are also increasing, with dominant producers like Myanmar and Indonesia able to
produce an estimated 700 million ya baa (amphetamine mixed with
caffeine) tablets on an annual basis.
Iran has intrinsic cultural, social and economic ties to the Afghan drug
industry, ensuring that if methamphetamine production and consumption becomes
deeply rooted, the production of ATS could easily spread to neighboring
Afghanistan. Unlike with organically produced drugs like cannabis, coca and
opium poppies, there are no hectares of crops to measure, no seasons to analyze
growth patterns, and no possibility for anti-narcotics authorities to remotely
detect the "cooking" of synthetic drugs indoors.
There is a strong need to enhance existing monitoring systems and actively
track any possible emergence of new synthetic drugs being manufactured and
trafficked from South Asia. If left unchallenged, the region could emerge as a
galvanized global narco-hegemony, dictating the global market price for a wide
range of illicit narcotics.
Matthew C DuPee is a senior research associate and Afghan specialist at
the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Ahmad Waheed is an Afghan
Fulbright scholar and research analyst for the Program of Culture and Conflict
Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.
(Copyright 2011 Matthew C DuPee and Ahmad Waheed.)