Great article in Foreign Policy on Iran’s drug troubles, accompanied by a photo set. It’s interesting to note that this UNODC report on drug use in Iran, which says that 2.26% of the nation is addicted to opiates, is actually by far the most optimistic picture of Iran’s drug problem that I’ve ever seen. Mainstream figures seem to be around 5%, and the most pessimistic say 10-15%. This might be the case more in Iran’s minority-dominated peripheries, where it’s said that addiction is so common that some factories give employees a break during the workday to use drugs.
There’s also no mention of softer drugs. Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd has argued that opium is losing popularity not, as this article suggests, due to official pressure, but because it’s a low-prestige drug. In Majd’s view, the trendy young Iranian psychonaut from the upper or new middle classes uses marijuana, which is “cooler” due to its associations with Western culture. Opium is reserved for the lower classes and the old-fashioned; for the young, it’s a symbol of Iran’s distant past. Both Brown and Majd may be right–Iran prides itself on being a frontline state in the war on drugs, and on seizing tons upon tons of narcotics within its borders, yet Iranian culture is also famously private–the smuggler might be facing pressure while the average user is only seeing price bumps.
Iran’s drug problem highlights an opportunity for the United States that is quickly going, ahem, up in smoke. As Brown points out, Iran has a cultural connection to opiates, but a key part of its drug problem is its neighbor, Afghanistan, where poppies are a pillar of the economy. The U.S. is, of course, heavily invested in Afghanistan and has never been certain how to respond to Afghanis cultivating drugs as a cash crop (the Internet abounds with photos of young American GIs standing in fields of poppies or marijuana). It has shied away from direct prosecution of poppy growers while struggling to find alternative crops, and it has allowed receiver states like Russia to try their hand at solving the Afghan drug problem. Much of the Afghani crop flows through Iran, putting drugs on Iran’s streets. The U.S. and Iran could certainly set aside their differences and attempt to crack down on drug smugglers and especially on the narcotics-terrorism connection. Such cooperation could force the Islamic Republic to grant the American government just a little trust. However, with the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan sometime in the next decade or so and handing over more power to the Afghan government (and its president Hamid Karzai, an alleged narcotics enthusiast), opportunities for cooperation on drug matters would be uselessly short-lived and shallow.