With the slow lifting of Iranian sanctions, the government will have opportunity to utilize the benefits of a burgeoning economy. With its target of doubling oil exports in six months, it will expectedly expand energy infrastructure and further support international commerce.
However, with increased tax revenue from the sale of oil, Iran will finally be able to tackle one of the most prevalent problems in Iranian society today, largely hidden from the outside world: a deep and troubling addiction to illegal narcotics.
Iran has slowly become one of the most addicted nations in the world. Although Iran’s official stance on usage rate is just over 2%, many studies have put that number closer to 6%, with nine out of ten being male. Ayatollah Revolutionaries once blamed the Pahlavi-era influences of Western culture for high usage rates, but with an ever-increasing rate of addiction in the new millenium, the addiction problem is now acknowledged as an issue of geography and geopolitics: close proximity to the poppy fields of Afghanistan and a painfully isolated economy. However, as sanctions gradually lift, the once small glimmer of hope for addiction prevention is now shining more brightly before the government. President Rouhani will not only have to stand behind his formal anti-narcotic doctrine, but innovatively tackle a problem few countries in the region have successfully solved.
The single most debilitating obstacle in Iran’s drug battle is the 936 km-long border shared with Afghanistan. On the other side of the border is a desolate and war-scarred landscape dotted with the pink and red sea of poppy flowers. Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, poppy production has nearly tripled, leaving Iran to singlehandedly defend its borders from the staggering amount of illegal narcotics that spill across it. Each year hundreds of Iranian border guard conscripts die in confrontations with drug smuggling operatives. With Iranian prices for opium six times higher than in Afghanistan, those clashes will not quickly conclude and the seduction and temptation economically speaking to keep bringing narcotics into the country will remain high.
The official Iranian stance toward drug smugglers detained at the border is one of severe punishment. Amnesty International has forecast that Iran will execute well over 1000 people in 2015, with over 80% of those for drug-trafficking convictions. Almost all are public hangings. While this method has not shown any effectiveness as a deterrent in drug use or trafficking, it has remained the only real policy for years. Iran accounts for 75% of the world’s opium seizures and 25% of heroin seizures. With a large conscription border guard force, Iran has been able to accomplish this while only spending 7% annually on drug prevention compared to what the United States spends. While poppy derivatives have skyrocketed since the beginning of the US invasion of Afghanistan, methamphetamine (known as ‘Shisheh’ in Farsi, or ‘glass’) has rapidly become a popular drug as well in the last several years. Thus, while Iran apprehends and seizes more drug traffickers and illegal narcotics than any other country, and rather brutally dispatches most of them, this has only led to an increase in amphetamine-type stimulants, which carry less risk than Afghan opium trafficking.
All of this is to the obvious suffering and detriment of Iranian youth and the unemployed. Over 20% of drug addicts in Iran have undergraduate college degrees, but many do not work. In the wake of repeatedly harsher sanctions the Iranians have repeatedly turned to illegal narcotics as a form of escapism in an economy that could no longer support them. While the government has tried desperately to end the drug flow into Iran, its attempts have ultimately failed and those that are addicted have little recourse. In this languished space of addiction, Iran has begun to establish hundreds of methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) programs in prisons and charities. However, these programs have also been irregularly funded as sanctions cut into essential budgets and those that were treated were released too quickly and therefore often relapse. Iranian MMT success rates have dipped to 25-30%, while developed programs around the world generally experience 60-90% success.
While the population struggles with staggering addiction rates, the government has finally negotiated a lifeline for its economy. Not only will the lifting of sanctions eventually put youth and the unemployed back to work (albeit slowly and cautiously), the government will finally have the capital to improve its social works projects. This should begin with the immediate funding of additional MMTs and increased funding for those operating with extremely tight budgets. While additional border guards will certainly result with more seizures, the flow of drugs is ever-constant and nightmarishly difficult to contain. In addition, increased economic growth may come with increased disposable income. If Iran does not act more holistically to its problem, then the demand for more drugs could explode into the country with this nuclear accord.
Over half of the poppy produced in Afghanistan is grown in Helmand province, a region devastated by war and tribalism. In order for Iran to curb poppy growth, it must cultivate economic participation in this area when possible. While Iran may have little authority over Afghanistan at the present time, a power vacuum will be left in the wake of US forces’ continued long withdrawal. This could create a vacuum Iran might exert influence on to the benefit of its own national security. Iran should encourage the Afghanistan market for saffron, a product that can replace poppy fields and brings 3,000 to 6,000 USD per kilogram. If Iran can encourage, educate, and create a saffron export marketplace within Afghanistan, the potential is large for poppy replacement and reduced trafficking. Iran has been investing heavily in Afghanistan and, with newfound economic power because of reduced or removed sanctions, Iran can provide a market for legal Afghan products while continuing their draconian tactics toward drug trafficking. If Iran truly wants this development and influence, and it should, then it will need to attach stipulations to economic aid in the tragically corrupt Afghanistan. Thus, with the international spotlight now on Iran, it should use this as a fascinating side opportunity to show how it can engage and integrate into the global community on more than just an anti-nuclear platform.
If economic participation explodes and Iranians go back to work, the government will be wholly pressured to continue its move toward progression and Western cooperation. Similarly, if Iran breaks the nuclear accord and sanctions return, the population may finally experience its ‘Arab Spring’ moment and demand a regime change as it nearly did following the 2009 elections. In this tightrope act, Iran must strategically seize the present opportunity. While economic participation will put people back to work and Iranian oil will once again flow to levels that have not been seen since the Pahlavi-era, Iran must address this underground and pernicious societal problem. Iran carries the world’s attention at the moment. Unlike in years past, the attention is almost unanimously positive (aside from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and American Republicans, but that is another story for another day). Iran must not let this opportunity pass, for the cycle of drug use will only increase if it fails to be addressed. The nuclear deal, therefore, is about a lot more than just energy and power projection.