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IRAN: Interview with Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention

TEHRAN, 5 Dec 2003 (IRIN) - During a visit to the desolate border area with Afghanistan and Pakistan, senior Iranian officials told Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, of the battle the Iranians were facing against drug trafficking. In the last eight months alone, 17 Iranian soldiers have been killed in nearly 200 shoot-outs with traffickers.

As Costa viewed the rugged, porous mountain passes, Iranian commanders warned him that this was not a war they could fight on their own, and increasingly sophisticated equipment was needed to keep up with the smugglers. In an interview with IRIN, Costa stressed that stability in neighbouring countries was needed in order for the endless flow of drugs through Iran to be stopped.

QUESTION: What is your assessment of the drugs situation in Iran?

ANSWER: My assessment is very positive, certainly in terms of the commitment on the part of the authorities to do the utmost, to reduce and control the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan. Obviously the country is facing a very serious situation of drug addiction. I have seen, by meeting with the authorities and visiting premises, including treatment facilities and so forth, that even in the area of prevention and treatment, the effort by the authorities is very significant.

It is not clear to me as yet, though, why the percentage of the population abusing substances is so high - it is unusually high and that is, of course, a matter of concern, and I would like to do a little bit more work in trying to understand the reasons for it.

Q: What more should the Iranians be doing?

A: I'm not sure they should do more. Prevention, obviously, is a dimension which should be fully explored and taken advantage of. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the situation in the academic schools, in the academic communities. I am convinced - and this has been my message in many countries - that the problem of control of narcotics - use and trafficking - is not only exercised by anti-narcotic means.

The entire society, whether we are talking about social policy, or educational policies, or health policies, communication policies in terms of media and so forth, sports policies - sports against drugs and crime and so forth - the entire society should keep in mind, especially in a country like Iran, where addiction and trafficking are so pronounced, the entire society needs to be committed. I have seen deliberate efforts, but we need to cast the net on an even broader surface.

I was pleased to learn about the new legislation against corruption, against money laundering. Those are all areas which are in one way or another connected with drug trafficking. There is then, another element, which is a bit more complicated to deal with or to refer to, which is the complexity of the economic system at large, which is in all countries, not only in Iran, to a large extent in many countries. I'm not sure if this is the case in Iran, but I will mention it anyway. Trafficants find a way to operate, because the general background is not competitive enough, not transparent enough, not exposed enough to competition - this happens in many countries and is perhaps indeed a matter that the Iranians need to look into.

Q: What are the main problems you've been hearing as regards trafficking drugs through Iran?

A: Well, obviously the country is, in a sense, under attack because of its geographical position, by trafficants from the east, from Afghanistan, trafficants of opium and heroin. There is a very significant amount of hashish also being trafficked partly from Afghanistan, but also from Africa. In the course of the morning, Minister Hashemi [the secretary-general of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Ali Hashemi] was manifesting concern about the amount of synthetic drugs which are coming from Europe, so whether you look at north or east or west or south, Iran is a crossroads of narcotic trafficking. Do, indeed, the situation is particularly difficult, perhaps more difficult than other countries.

Q: How does stability in neighbouring countries affect the situation when there is no reduction in demand?

A: Indeed, you are right. Reduction and demand is a key dimension which is not fully explored in other countries, where demand is very high. We have estimated that about 10 million people abuse opiate products from Afghanistan, so unless this demand, which is mostly a European problem - but not only - unless this demand is brought under control, somewhere, somehow, somebody's going to produce opium, and if it is not opium it could be synthetic drugs, and if it is not synthetic drugs, something else. You are right in stressing the question of reducing demand.

You can see the problem both ways. Since we do believe that there is a very unhealthy relation between terrorists and drug traffickers, basically terrorists offer protection to drug traffickers in exchange for resources. I believe that fighting drugs, whether from the demand side or from the supply side, that it is equivalent to fighting terrorism, certainly in this area of the world, and fighting terrorism is indeed another way to reduce the amount of protection which drug traffickers use.

Q: How did the toppling of the Taliban affect the drug smuggling route through Iran?

A: Well, this is an interesting question. It's a long story. Erroneously, when I travel, journalists compare the situation in 2002 and 2003, namely after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001. They compare it with a very low harvest in 2001. Of course, that comparison shows that there's been a major increase in 2003 with respect to 2001.

However, if you take a bit of a long stretch and you look at the longer time horizon, for example when the Taliban took over - the Taliban regime I believe lasted about five years - in the first year the Taliban, or under the Taliban, the cultivation reached 2,300 tonnes. In the last full year of Taliban presence, in 1999, the amount of opium cultivated was 4,600 [tonnes] - twice as much at the end of the period 1999 with respect to a few years earlier, always under the Taliban. So the Taliban were extremely implicated, protecting and assisting the cultivation and trafficking - not the abuse - of opium.

Then the ban came - we are talking about the last few months of the year 2000, which affected plenty in the year 2000, therefore the harvest of 2001. At that time, we should not forget, that the Taliban ban only concerned cultivation, not trafficking, and this is symbolic and ironic, obviously because one of the reasons the Taliban banned cultivation of opium - cultivation, I stress - is because they had their warehouses full and they needed to reduce their stocks, above all benefiting from obviously higher prices, because there was no cultivation in 2001.

The operation, which has a deep economic underpinning, from their vantage point, was successful, because opium prices skyrocketed from $35-$40 a kilo in 2000, to $700 a kilo. They increased by 20 times. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the Taliban tried to massively benefit from the placement on the market of the stocks of opium they had.

There is obviously another element. By looking at the writings which were eventually found in Afghanistan following the collapse of the Taliban, that they understood the trafficking of opium as a political weapon, as one way to fight their enemies wherever they could be located and whomever you could consider their enemies. So, it was another weapon they used - a very pernicious one. So I am not all that favourable to some of the comparisons I hear about now and then.

Q: Iran says the West must shoulder some of the responsibility. How do you think the international community should help?

A: Well, the international community is obviously backing the exercise of drug control on the part of the Iranian authorities quite strongly. Certainly the United Nations, which is the symbol of the international community, which is the symbol of unilateralism, is doing a lot. We have extended assistance, both in terms of resources and in terms of best practice, and in terms of drug control on the demand side and on the supply side - a broad range of initiatives, including dealing with the consequences of addiction through HIV.

We have provided equipment, some of them sophisticated equipments. So we've done a lot. It is always possible to hope for even greater assistance, but I believe that should not necessarily be the focus of the period that I have had, but I believe that we have, in all countries, not only in Iran, we have to keep the fight against narcotics at the crossroads, also many aspects of domestic decision-making, so that the entire society can express its own measures against trafficking.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. Copyright UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003

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