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Poppies and Power: Fighting Drug Addiction in a Post-Nuclear Iran

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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.

Brian Hughes is currently a student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA.

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Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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