A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2000, Pages 32-34
Iran’s Drug Wars
By Andrew North
At least 35 drug enforcement officers were killed when their patrol was ambushed by heavily armed drug traffickers. The officers were captured during the ambush and then executed.
With the location unspecified, many people probably would think this incident happened in a Latin American country like Colombia, where drug-related violence has become routine.
In fact, the ambush last November took place in eastern Iran, on the country’s border with Afghanistan. Iran’s anti-narcotics forces suffered their highest death toll in a single incident in years. Sadly, however, it came as no surprise within Iran, where almost 200 troops died last year in clashes with drug gangs. Since the early 1980s, at least 3,000 Iranian soldiers and police have died in this ongoing war.
Because it has become the main route for traffickers bent on smuggling opium paste and, increasingly, processed heroin from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Iran is engaged in a “drug war” every bit as vicious and costly as that being fought by Latin American governments. But Tehran’s conflict receives barely any attention from the outside world.
Drug experts believe 90 percent of all the heroin consumed in Europe originates in Afghanistan, with significant proportions shipped on to the United States and Canada. Despite a drop in opium output last year—caused mainly by drought—Afghanistan remains by far the world’s largest opium producer.
Iran’s eastern frontier is ideal smuggling territory: a region of barren mountain valleys and desert plains, swept by biting winds, with relatively few towns and settlements. Ranged against the traffickers are some 30,000 Iranian law enforcement officers and border troops, posted along the country’s 1,200 miles of border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Iran also has built a series of concrete barriers across mountain valleys and dug hundreds of miles of deep trenches to stop all-terrain vehicles. A network of watchtowers stretches along the frontier.
But, not surprisingly, the traffickers are not deterred, since literally billions of dollars are at stake for the smugglers, whose ultimate bosses may be far away in Western Europe, Turkey or the Gulf.
“Last year, we had 1,440 running gun battles with traffickers,” said Esmail Afshari, head of international relations at Iran’s Drugs Control Headquarters. “We are in real war with them.”
Because the traffickers—Iranians and Pakistanis, as well as Afghans—are so well armed, Iranian troops often come off worse in clashes. Captured traffickers have been found with the latest communication and navigation equipment, as well as highly sophisticated weapons.
The drug gangs have “used Stinger missiles against our helicopters,” according to Afshari “You can guess the source,” he added. The CIA supplied Stinger missiles—made only in the U.S.—to the Afghan mujahideen in the late-1980s during the fight to eject Soviet troops from the country.
Not only are the traffickers heavily armed, they are clever, having found ways around the barriers and new methods of smuggling their illicit cargoes. Camels have become a favorite means of transport. According to anti-narcotics officers, the traffickers exploit the strong bond between female camels and their newborn, separating the young camels from their mothers and taking the calves across the border into Iran. The mothers, loaded up with drugs, will home in on their offspring and keep going until they find them. The drug gangs do not even need to accompany the cargo-laden animals, but merely wait at the transfer point with the young camels.
There also are signs that the traffickers are simply avoiding the barriers constructed along the Afghanistan-Iran border and taking instead the northern route into Turkmenistan, before heading back into Iran for the journey westward.
Once across the border, other couriers take the consignments across Iran to laboratories in eastern Turkey, where most of the heroin consumed in Europe is made. Intelligence officials, however, say growing quantities of heroin are being processed inside Afghanistan itself.
Iranian narcotics squads have made some huge seizures. One camel train yielded over 3 tons of opium and 1.5 tons of morphine base, which would have been turned into heroin. In late September, a police operation against a Tehran-based drug ring recovered 500 kilograms of opium and arrested 20 people. Another 130 kilograms of opium was seized by drugs officers in a raid in Yazd, in Iran’s central desert region.
Last year, Iran seized 22 tons of morphine base, accounting for 90 percent of the world total, as well as 6 tons of heroin. Yet Mr. Afshari reckons that is less than half the amount being smuggled through the country.
Largely because of its isolation from the West, Iran until recently has fought this battle entirely on its own. In the past year, however, Europe has been waking up to the need to start helping the effort. “Iran’s problem is our problem,” said Chris Hardwick, the UK customs representative at an international drug conference the Iranian government recently hosted in the eastern city of Mashad.
Drug specialists from across Europe, as well as from Turkey, Pakistan and even Canada, attended the conference. As part of a $13 million assistance package administered by the U.N. Drugs Control Program (UNDCP) the UK, along with others, is providing Iran with vehicles, night vision equipment, flak jackets and training. France has provided a team of sniffer dogs. Weapons are ruled out because of continuing restrictions on arms exports to Iran.
Iranian drug officials are heartened that European governments are taking notice, but they say they need far more assistance. Compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars Iran is spending in combating drug traffickers, what Tehran has been given to date is “a peanut,” said one narcotics officer at the Mashad conference,
There certainly is a contrast between the help Iran is getting from Europe and the massive assistance program Washington has just announced for Colombia. The U.S. government is set to provide more than $1 billion in military aid to help that Latin American country in its conflict with cocaine producers—one that has many similarities to the battles Iran is facing. U.S. help would be welcome in one area in particular: replacing the aging Vietnam-era, American-made Hueys used by Iran’s border forces with newer helicopters.
The reality, of course, is that the U.S. will not provide any direct help to Iran as long as the diplomatic split between Washington and Tehran persists. The Clinton administration has given some recognition to Tehran’s efforts, however, with its decision in 1998 to remove Iran from the list of states regarded as uncooperative in international drugs control.
For Iran, winning the battle becomes ever more important because of growing drug abuse among its own people. Despite the fact that Iranians have been smoking opium for centuries, with the increased processing of heroin in Afghanistan there has been “a flood of pure heroin onto the Iranian market,” according to Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNDCP’s Tehran representative. Heroin now is often cheaper than opium in Tehran. Iran has at least one million addicts, many of them young people.
And, according to Mr. Afshari, not only Iran is paying the price. “Afghanistan is imposing its problems on my country,” he said, “on neighboring countries and to Europe.” The only long-term solution, he said, is for the international community to “be more involved in alternative development plans and crop substitution inside Afghanistan,” in order to give farmers there an incentive not to grow opium poppies.
Yet in September, the United Nations announced that its program to provide some Afghan opium farmers alternative sources of income, through crop substitution and other schemes—which has been hailed as a success—will be wound up at the end of the year. The reason: lack of funding from Western donor nations, who have become increasingly reluctant to back any development projects in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Instead, some donor nations seem to be favoring a more aggressive approach. The U.S. and British governments have been funding research by former Soviet scientists into a fungus that attacks and kills the opium poppy plant.
It is not clear how this biological weapon could be deployed, since to do so without the consent of Taliban authorities in Afghanistan would certainly be construed as an act of aggression. There also are concerns that the fungus could mutate and start attacking other plants as well. In any case, many drug experts say, the farmers and drug traffickers would simply grow the poppy elsewhere.
Perhaps more important in the long term, adopting this search-and-destroy approach to the Afghan drug problem simply avoids the complicated questions of why farmers keep growing the opium poppy. Only when an effective answer to that question is found, say narcotics experts, will Afghanistan cease to be such an important source for the world’s drug-consuming markets.
Andrew North writes from Dogharun, on the Iran-Afghanistan border.
Afghan refugees in Iran Face Uncertain Future
It was a homecoming, but there was no welcome.
Pushing carts loaded with their belongings, or struggling with over-packed bags and boisterous children, hundreds of Afghan refugees were crossing the wasteland at the Dogharun border point between Iran and Afghanistan.
Spurred by incentives offered by a repatriation program run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Afghans had decided to try their chances back home after years of sheltering in Iran. Buses roared through the checkpoint carrying more refugees to towns further into Afghanistan, such as Kabul or Kandahar.
Taliban guards looked on, turning their backs against the clouds of dust that blow constantly across this remote border point. Some 100,000 Afghans have left Iran since April, when the UNHCR program began. According to the agency, up to 4,500 have been crossing over each week at Dogharun and other border points. But that is a small proportion of Iran’s Afghan refugee population, estimated to be anywhere between 1.4 and 2 million, and far fewer than the Iranian government was hoping would take advantage of the UNHCR program.
Most of the Afghans are refugees from the civil war that has gripped the country since the mid-1990s and the emergence of the Taliban movement. But Iran has sheltered successive waves of refugees since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This has imposed a massive strain on the country, and the Iranian government says openly that it is time for the Afghans to go home.
The refugees, however, are reluctant to return to a life under the Taliban’s strict Islamic code. Chief among their concerns is the virtual ban on female education. “Here, my daughters can go to school,” said Hafiz, one of 7,000 Afghans living in the Torbat-e-Jam refugee camp in Khorasan province, some 30 miles from the border.
Despite his family’s limited prospects at this isolated camp, he said they did not want to return to Afghanistan. Even refugees who had signed up to be repatriated told the Washington Report they were worried, as they assembled at the UNHCR transit camp at Dogharun, 100 yards from the border. Some also are concerned about continued fighting.
But Ismail Haideri said he and his family had no choice. “There is no work for us here,” he said. “And Iran wants us to go back. They are giving us some money, so God willing, we will be all right.”
Upon their return, the UNHCR would give Ismail Haideri $20 for each family member. The refugee agency also provided the family with water containers, wheat, and plastic sheets to help with temporary repairs to their home.
Mohammed Nuri, UNHCR’s spokesman in Iran, acknowledged that many Afghans have doubts about returning, but said they were under no pressure to do so. “The UNHCR makes sure that all the repatriation is voluntary,” he stressed, “so they are going entirely of their own free will.”
The UNCHR spokesman pointed out that Afghans are entitled to apply for asylum if they believe they will suffer persecution back home, and said many have done so.
The success of the repatriation program is further complicated by the fact that Afghans who have returned may not have stayed home. Due to persistent insecurity in Afghanistan, many have returned to Iran several times. And in the early stages of the program, when a $40 return incentive was being offered, many Afghans would go back home to claim the money and then return to Iran. In fact, on the day this reporter was at Dogharun, several groups of Afghans were seen heading back across the frontier into Iran.
In September, Iran and the UNHCR decided to continue the repatriation program for at least another three months. But when she visited Iran to review the program, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata admitted that its success is not “assured.” She actually arrived in Iran via the Dogharun border post, after holding talks with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Ogata said she gave Taliban officials a “very clear message” that the issue of schooling for girls was critical to the future of UNHCR’s repatriation effort. She said she told them that the refugees regard education as “a very serious yardstick on which they will decide whether to go.”
However, she said the Taliban would not give assurances of a change in policy. Yet for many Afghans in Iran, only these kinds of assurances will persuade them that they have a future in their own country. And only then will significant numbers of Afghans return home.
Iran’s Pro-Reform Press Attempts a Quiet Re-Launch
Although many Iranians could be forgiven if they had not noticed, a new national daily newspaper was launched in Iran in October. There was no pre-launch advertising blitz of the kind that would be deemed essential if the paper were being launched in the U.S. or other Western countries—not even a promotional party to publicize the first edition. The only marketing was a few posters pasted up at some of Tehran’s major junctions.
But in Iran’s current political climate, the low-profile launch of this new paper—called Hambastegi, or “Solidarity”—is not so surprising. Hambastegi is an advocate for reform, like the more than 20 newspapers closed down by conservative-controlled courts earlier this year, in a move that effectively silenced Iran’s nascent liberal press. Hambastegi ’s publishers are worried that if they attract too much attention they could face the same fate.
The closure of the pro-reform newspapers between April and July this year provoked widespread criticism, internationally as well as inside Iran. But publishers have proven powerless to resist the crackdown, and many prominent editors and journalists remain in jail. Hambastegi’s editors, however, say it is important that they try to publish a new title, because the print media serve as a key—and often the sole—voice for reformists, as the broadcast media largely transmit conservative, establishment views.
The demand for alternative views clearly exists. Despite its low-key launch, Hambastegi already is selling some 100,000 copies, particularly to younger people who lapped up the vocal, often brash style of its banned predecessors. Another pro-reform paper, Aftab-e Yazd, which started publishing in late August, also appears to be doing well. According to Iranian analysts, however, talk of a revival of the country’s liberal press is premature. Many of the publications banned between April and July this year were accused of undermining Iran’s Islamic system and values, and the courts retain wide-ranging powers to close down the fledgling papers.
Efforts by reformists in Iran’s parliament to overturn the restrictive press laws collapsed in August, after a dramatic intervention by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ordered the legislators to drop their plans.
In fact, Hambastegi delayed its launch several times in part because of concerns about its legal status. Such caution appears to have been warranted because, after just three editions, conservative leaders had made 27 complaints about the paper’s contents to the courts. “We think it is possible that the director will be summoned to court,” a senior editor admitted. “We could be closed down any time.”
This despite the fact that Hambastegi and Aftab-e Yazd are very different to their predecessors, which flourished in the run-up to the February parliamentary elections won by the reformists. Gone are the outspoken attacks on key figures in the conservative establishment, or calls for radical change.
Hambastegi is “more conservative [than] the previous newspapers,” one of the paper’s writers said. “It is reformist,” he added, “but moderate reformist.”
In fact, the paper is sponsored by the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a moderate political faction in parliament and part of the broad grouping that backs the program of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
The paper’s more centrist approach appears to be popular with its journalists, even those who had worked on banned publications such as Asr-e Azadegan and Khordad. Many said they are glad just to be working. “Most of my colleagues don’t have a job,” said a reporter on the foreign desk. “Their families are in bad shape.”
In some ways, the centrist approach of Hambastegi and Aftab-e Yazd reflects the mood of many Iranians now. Demands for more rapid change have proved futile, only provoking a backlash from conservative forces. One Tehran-based analyst said the now-banned press is partly to blame for this sense of disillusionment.“The reformist newspapers,” he explained, “raised people’s expectations to a level that could not be realized in a short period of time.”
Nonetheless, the analyst said, because of the lack of alternative media for spreading their message, even moderate elements in the reform movement have been seriously weakened by the silencing of the liberal press. Consequently, there is a lot of hope riding on Hambastegi and Aftab-e Yazd.
Even if these new dailies are themselves closed down, however, many commentators say it is too late to change the views of the millions of Iranians who have bought pro-reform newspapers or voted for reform candidates. “These people have not disappeared,” said one respected commentator. “They are still learning the facts, they are still forming their opinions and judgments. And I think ...what they judge is destructive to the conservatives in the long run.”