May 23, 2011 | Commentary

Iran’s Profitable War on Drugs

Responding to criticism of Iran’s abysmal record in death sentences (including the highest number of child executions in the world), Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, threatened to flood European markets with heroin: “Westerners have to either be Iran’s partner in the fight against drug traffickers or we must think otherwise and, for instance, allow the transit” of drugs across Iranian territory, according to an Associated Press report. Larijani suggested that 74 percent of those hanged in Iran every year are executed on drug-related charges and, therefore, if the West helped Iran more, death sentences would drop by 74 percent!

If Iran’s record were not so gruesome, Larijani’s suggestion would be laughable. Leaving aside the fact that the remaining 26 per cent of executions not only involve common criminals but also an abundant and ever-growing list of political dissidents and members of ethnic and religious minorities, the complete lack of due process and the most basic principles of judicial fairness in Iran’s judicial system ensure that even in those cases where truly heinous crimes are being punished by the death penalty, judgment is passed without justice.

Besides, the figure Larijani offers is bogus—many dissidents have been executed on trumped up charges—as it was the case with Dutch citizen Zahra Bahrami. She was sentenced to death for drug-related crimes, but she had originally been arrested for participating in anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, while on a visit to relatives in Iran. Her crime, then, was to have joined millions of other Iranians in protesting peacefully against their oppressive regime. Drug-crimes were a pretext, which make her, and many others, fall into the bizarrely inflated estimate Larijani cited.

Sadly, Larijani knows his threats will be taken seriously. Iranians complain routinely that they fight drug traffickers without recognition, having done everything to convince Europeans that an alliance with Iran in the war on drugs is possible. Some European leaders have gone so far as to give the Iranian claim an undeserved aura of respectability. In 2009, for example, Italy’s Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, speaking in Brussels about a proposed June G-8 conference on Afghanistan, announced to a stunned audience that “We also want to explore with our allies the possibility of inviting Iran: Iran can be part of the solution, particularly in the fight against narco-traffic which feeds the insurgence.” Fortunately, someone talked Frattini out of this idea, but the distorted perception that Iran is a partner in the war on drugs remains.

As a consequence, Iran benefited repeatedly from Western aid in the fight against drugs’ trafficking. That aid included the supply of advanced military equipment the sale of which was authorized, despite existing embargoes, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2005, for example, Austrian arms manufacturer, Steyr Mannlicher, sold 800 sniper rifles under license. Iran was also supplied with British-made bullet proof vests and night vision equipment for the same purpose.

If there is a proven track record of European willingness to buy into its argument that Iran is fighting a war against drug traffickers on behalf of Europe, there is also abundant evidence that the Iranian regime is taking the mickey out of its naïve European interlocutors.

It is not just that the aforementioned arms supplies were not used to fight drug traffickers but served other, less noble purposes—the Austrian guns were reverse-engineered by Iran’s military industry, as I have  documented elsewhere—and their replicas ended up being supplied to Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting Western forces, while the night vision equipment made its way to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

The reality is far worse. Not only has the Iranian regime exploited Western assistance in the war against drugs to acquire sophisticated technology that ended up benefiting Iran’s supported terrorists in the region. What’s worse, Iran is actually making a profit from the drug trade, which, according to Wikileaks cables from the U.S. Embassy in Baku, is in fact run by the regime. In 2009, U.S. diplomats noted the dramatic increase in heroin exports from Iran into Azerbaijan and added that in all likelihood Iran was responsible for the increased flow of drugs transiting through the Caspian region on their way to European markets. The cables referred to evidence of “active Iranian security personnel collaboration in transit traffic and in the operation of heroin processing laboratories in Tabriz and elsewhere in Iran.” So much, then, for Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi’s recent claim that “Iran has never been appreciated for its efforts in the fight against drugs trafficking, although it has incurred heavy costs,” or Larijani’s lamenting that the West is not doing enough to help Iran fight drug traffickers.

The main culprit of heroin transits (and, it appears, a main beneficiary of its revenues) turns out to be the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime that acts like a crime syndicate in how it runs its foreign policy while winning all the prizes for worst human-rights records in the world.