Sanctions on Iran May Boost Drug Trafficking and Destabilize Iraq

Published October 9th, 2018 - 01:43 GMT
An Iranian officer displays packages of seized Afghan-made drugs (AFP)
An Iranian officer displays packages of seized Afghan-made drugs (AFP)

By Eleanor Beevor

Iran lies in the middle of one of the global drug trade’s most active routes. And for that, it both makes money, and pays a price. Iran’s population suffers from a shockingly high level of drug addiction. But the country is also an increasingly big player in exporting illegal drugs, both to its neighbours, and further abroad. Iraq in particular has been caught in the crossfire of Iranian drug exports, and if the trade spikes, Iraqi stability could be even more precarious.

In a paradoxical turn of events, the onset of increasingly tough sanctions on Iran could make its involvement in the illegal drug trade even bigger. The full force of the Trump administration’s secondary sanctions on Iran have not yet been felt. That will happen in November, when Iran’s oil exports come under sanction. It’s thus too early to say for sure that sanctions will boost illegal drug exports, and their associated security risks. But it has been known to happen before, both in Iran, and in other countries. And given the prevalence of militia groups in the region, this could make for some very dangerous alliances.

Richard D. Kauzlarich, a retired American Ambassador to Azerbaijan, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Mason University who has studied international drug smuggling told Al Bawaba: 

We have seen cases in other parts of the world where drug traffickers and armed groups have made profitable business such as in the Balkans and Columbia to name just two. Sanctions increase the economic returns for criminal elements willing to traffic in drugs and other sanctioned commodities. If the sanctions are successful in pressing the Iranian regime, it is likely that Iran’s drug trade will grow. Not only would this impact on Iraq but it would also harm Azerbaijan which already has a serious drug trafficking problem.”


There are several reasons why Iran has a lot of drugs to supply. For a start, its 900 kilometer border with Afghanistan means that it is more or less impossible for the country to escape the influence of smugglers. Just this week, Iran seized a shipment of heroin weighing over a thousand kilograms, which was reportedly bound for Europe. 

Opium is the most widely consumed drug in Iran, for the simple reason that neighbouring Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of it. And regular drug use among Iranians doubled between 2011 and 2017 because of a spike in Afghan opium production. Now 2.8 million Iranians are thought to use drugs on a regular basis, with the UN declaring that Iran has one of the highest drug addiction rates in the world. 67% of the drugs consumed in Iran are opiates. Marijuana is widely consumed, but so is methamphetamine, or crystal meth.


And the crystal meth of Iran tells an interesting story. Back in 2012, when Iran was in the economic throes of internationally enforced sanctions, one of the few trades that was booming was the illegal drug trade. The Washington Post reported at the time that law enforcement “…from Europe to southeast Asia” were “…witnessing a flood of high-quality methamphetamine of Iranian origin”. Indeed, the purity of the meth - the measure of its quality - was so high that American analysts believed that it could only have been produced “…by professional chemists in pharmaceutical-grade laboratories.” Whilst meth use is now on the rise in Iran, it is still far less widely used by Iranians than opium. This suggests that the methamphetamines produced in Iran then were predominantly for export.

Things change, but they also stay the same. Six years later, there are growing fears that drug use - particularly meth – could further destabilize Iran’s fragile neighbour Iraq. The city of Basra, which has been rocked by protests over appalling conditions and service provision throughout 2018, is the epicenter of crystal meth use in Iraq.

That’s at least partly because of its location, near the borders of Iran and Kuwait. Residents of Basra have described Iranian drug smugglers being caught at the border on a weekly basis, often smuggling the drugs in their clothes or shoes. Other smugglers disguise themselves as religious pilgrims. And the residents of Basra have been deeply affected. The city’s police arrested 4,035 drug users and dealers between 2015 and 2017, and have been forced to expand their counter-narcotics force.

An anti-narcotics poster at a drug-burning ceremony in Iran (AFP)

Distinguishing between petty crime and international security isn’t always easy. And in this case it’s especially hard, since Iranian and Iraqi drug traders are directly linked to dangerous and terrorist militias. And some of these militias have extremely powerful allies in state governments. Militias are an entrenched feature of Iraq’s sectarian conflict and its Iranian influence.

But the lines between those and the gangs involved in drug smuggling are often confusing, if there at all. Dr. Paul Rexton Kan, a Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College, and an expert on drug trafficking in conflict zones told Al Bawaba about these overlaps:

Militias and drug producers can work together in a number of ways. In fact, they can be one in the same. Broadly speaking, militias rely on three types of people: fighters, supporters and sympathizers. Fighters actively participate in violence; supporters assist fighters; sympathizers do little to actively support violence, but support the ideas behind the cause. 

Drug producers are mostly supporters or sympathizers who seek to help the cause. Some are interested in profit and some may be coerced. Smugglers usually take advantage of traditional smuggling routes to bring drug loads into a country. Typically, transportation is the biggest risk so this is where the greatest profit margin lies.” 

A recent article in the Iraqi outlet Al-Mustaqbal suggests that the militias involved in drug smuggling from Iran into Iraq have friends in very high places. The article implicates the Iranian Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, and the Badr militia, which is associated with the Iran-backed Iraqi political party Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. All of these organisations have known histories of engaging in illegal activities to fund their militant activities. 


Hezbollah has been associated several times with Latin American drug dealers. And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is one of the few Iranian institutions that thrives in economic crisis, particularly that caused by sanctions. Each time that Iran has found itself gripped by international sanctions, the IRGC was able to tighten its control on the economy, and with it the group’s hardline political influence. This is because they are both breakers and enforcers of the law. Their vast business empire can cut corners and engage in illegal trades with no fear of consequences. And when the sanctions wiped out the Iranian private sector, the IRGC’s affiliated companies were handed a monopoly on the Iranian economy.

The fresh wave of sanctions will in all likelihood increase illegal activity in the region, particularly drug trafficking. Dr. Rexton Kan continued:

I do believe that all sorts of illicit activities will flourish with the tightening of sanctions. Traffickers love sanctions. They represent opportunities, not obstacles. As risk of transportation grows, so too does the profit incentive. Plus, as sanctions tighten on licit goods, the incentive to turn to more profitable illicit trafficking grows.

Sanctions are a favourite “quick-fix” solution for foreign policymakers. But they come with the law of unintended consequences. And for the price of hurting some Iranians, those involved in the illegal drug trade, and the terrorist groups who profit from them, could be empowered.

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