It sounds like something from the Middle Ages but it’s the latest method for drug traffickers along the Iran-Afghanistan border.
The commander of Sistan and Baluchestan’s border guard, Raham Bakhsh Habibi, says that drug traffickers are smuggling drugs into Iran by using a catapult made of special metal fixtures and tire tubes that can toss packages weighing 10 kilograms up to 2 kilometers into Iranian territory.
The containers are tossed into Iran from Afghanistan and then collected by the traffickers’ associates on the other side of the border. Some of these packages have been found and seized by the border guards, Habibi said, but clearly not all.
Despite a multi-million-dollar project that started a decade ago to build a concrete barrier and deep ditches along Iran’s borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran has not been able to curb the flow of drugs into Iran.
Drug traffickers also take advantage of what is known as the “wind of 120 days” – a period of intense storms that start in the last month of spring and go through summer — to evade surveillance systems and cross the border.
A 2015 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the worth of heroin and opium trafficked from Afghanistan to Western Europe at $28 billion annually. Iran is a major destination for drugs as well as a transit route. Iranian authorities seize about 30 percent of the 155 tons of heroin and opium believed to enter Iran each year.
The abundance of drugs has contributed to a horrific addiction problem in Iran. Officials estimate the number of drug addicts at over 1.3 million and unofficial figures are much higher. According to Parviz Afshar, a spokesman for Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters, 9 percent of the addicts are women and many drug users have higher education.
With the number of drug-related offenses and prisoners soaring in Iran, the issue of drug use and addiction has also become an enormous burden on Iran’s criminal justice system. Iran has been criticized for using the death penalty in a losing battle to stop trafficking, with an estimated 65 percent of the 1,000 people executed last year convicted of drug-related offenses.
Death through drug overdose and transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids is also on the rise.
According to Iran’s Interior Minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, no country in the world is so vulnerable to drugs because of Iran’s location “next to Afghanistan, a country that annually produces 6,000 tons of illicit drugs and Iran is one of the main transit routes.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s fight on drug trafficking has resulted in 3,800 deaths and 12,000 thousand wounded, Rahmani Fazli said in a New York meeting with Mogens Lykketoft, President of the seventieth session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Neither the death penalty for traffickers nor concrete barriers has overcome the challenge. Despite the staggering number of drug-related executions, the number of traffickers is not decreasing. The border wall has also proven ineffective. In the past, smugglers would take cheap Iranian fuel or foodstuffs such as rice and flour into Afghanistan and Pakistan and bring back sewing machines, china and glass dishes. The border barrier, according to some locals, has prevented this trade but not stopped drug trafficking.
What is the solution? The governor of the border city of Hirmand has called for more advanced electronic equipment including solar power systems that cannot be disrupted by the traffickers. However, the challenge cannot be addressed solely through technology.
More regional and international cooperation is imperative. Rahmani Fazli said in his meeting with directors and advisors to Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters that fighting drug trafficking is not just a fight for Iran and Afghanistan, but a global issue that requires global involvement.
Iran’s security forces conduct 500-600 armed operations to fight drug trafficking annually. In the last Iranian calendar year (March 2015-2016), authorities seized 620 tons of illicit drugs inside Iran, decreasing the amounts reaching other countries. These countries, however, “never helped us and they would justify their lack of support with sanctions that they claimed prevented them to provide us with [needed] equipment,” Rahmani Fazli complained.
Sanctions relief following the recent nuclear agreement should make it easier for Iran to acquire necessary technology and equipment to fight drug trafficking.
For years, Iran has been isolated in its war against illicit drugs. Now, the approach should be similar to the global response to the Ebola outbreak. Today no country should be left alone in fighting any epidemic, be it an infectious disease or drug addiction. It is in the interest of Iran and the international community to cooperate to end this scourge.
Fatemeh Aman is an expert on the Middle East and South Asia. She has worked as a journalist, media and political analyst, and has written widely in English and Persian on Iran, and South Asia. She is a frequent contributor to Jane’s publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst and Jane’s Intelligence Review, and appears often on Persian and English-speaking media outlets. She is the co-author of Atlantic Council’s report “Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability.”