Iran's Drug Policy: Hypocrisy in Action

Iran sees much of the world's heroin supply travel through its territory. However, Iran isn't simply a transit point. By most estimates the country has one of the highest rates of heroin and opium addiction in the world.
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At the end of June, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi delivered a bizarre, rambling, accusatory and anti-Semitic speech that blamed the Talmud, a traditional Jewish holy text, for the world's drug problems. These comments were made at a conference put on with the help of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While the absurdity of this statement and others like it is apparent to nearly anyone listening, it tells us all something important about how the regime in Tehran perceives the world, and how it wants to be perceived. It also lays bare the incredible ability of the regime in Tehran to deny reality, and in the process continually create new and more outrageous definitions of the word chutzpah.

Iran does face a daunting drug problem. Being a neighbor to the world's largest poppy growers in Afghanistan does not help, as Iran sees much of the world's heroin supply travel through its territory. However, Iran isn't simply a transit point. By most estimates the country has one of the highest rates of heroin and opium addiction in the world.

This would seem to be ample reason for a serious set of anti-drug policies. Yet simply acknowledging that a problem objectively exists doesn't let the Iranian regime off the hook. Remember that the regime has used the reality of drug trafficking in Iran to justify unspeakable acts of barbarity.

According to Amnesty International, 488 people were executed in Iran for 'drug related offenses' in 2011. Another 171 have been executed so far this year. This charge has become a catchall used by the regime to justify its rampant use of the death penalty. As has been the case in the past, the regime is using the pretense of drug offenses to silence political opposition (as in the case of the Dutch-Iranian woman Zahra Bahrami), intimidate ethnic minorities, and make the regime's authority crystal clear.

This heinous behavior is compounded by the brazen hypocrisy of the regime's own actions when it comes to drugs. What exactly am I getting at? There exists the simple fact that the regime is actively participating in the trafficking and distribution of the same narcotics for which it is so wantonly executing others.

In March the United States Department of Treasury labeled Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Gholamreza Baghban a drug "kingpin." The designation was made pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) because of General Baghban's direct role in trafficking heroin from Afghanistan, and the connection that the smuggling had to international terrorism. Further evidence of regime complicity in the drug trade was released to the public in 2009 when a State Department cable from Embassy Baku in Azerbaijan revealed that the regime was directly responsible for increasing flows of opiates through that country. So while the regime has legitimate concerns when it comes to the prevalence of opiates in the country, it's clearly playing a double game.

It is reasonable to assume that General Baghban is not the only individual involved in the illicit drug trade in Iran, and that the suspicions revealed by Wikileaks are only the tip of the iceberg. But just what is the Iranian regime hoping to achieve by engaging in the sale and trafficking of illegal drugs? The answer is exactly what it is hoping to achieve in its range of other commercial dealings: to bolster its own resources used to support terrorist organizations abroad, to exert increasing levels of control over Iran's economy, and to surreptitiously maintain a stranglehold on its politics. The regime has also attempted to use the drug trade as diplomatic leverage in the past, threatening Western Europe with greater inflows of drugs if the EU continues to criticize the country's use of the death penalty. Given its behavior here, it's little surprise that the regime continues to buck international opinion on issues like its human rights record and continuing illicit nuclear program.

So how should the world deal with Iran's behavior? Here are three steps that must be taken: First and foremost, the international community must continue to demand that Iran cease applying the death penalty in the thoughtless, cruel, and capricious manner that it does. Iran is once again on pace to execute more on a per capita basis than any country in the world. Second, as world leaders gather for the General Assembly meetings this September, they must highlight this horrible hypocrisy over drugs in Iran. Finally, world powers should demand a complete review of the manner in which the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime deals with Iran. No longer should the UNODC be providing the Iranian regime with a platform to spew hatred. Even more importantly, it should not be providing the Iranian regime with resources that help it continue its brutal assault on its own citizenry.

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