SORKHE KALAT, Iran — A war is being waged on the barren wastelands of eastern Iran, but few outside this country are aware of it.
On one side are the forces of the Islamic Republic, in their kelly green uniforms, baseball caps and military boots, flying ancient U.S.-made Huey helicopters or hunkered down in newly built versions of medieval fortresses.
Marshaled against them is a criminal enemy--clever, ruthless and formidably armed--made up of Afghani and Pakistani drug smugglers and their Iranian accomplices.
The criminals are intent on getting hundreds of tons of opium and heroin that are produced each year in Afghanistan safely to the desert interior of Iran, to be sold for local consumption or shipped to Turkey and Western Europe. The Iranian forces are trying to staunch the flow of drugs across their border, as a matter of religious duty and of self-interest for the Islamic government, which is vexed by signs that many bored, underemployed young people are falling into the grips of a drug epidemic.
But closing the border to traffickers is a daunting task; there are more than 1,100 miles of unpopulated, unforgiving frontier with Afghanistan and Pakistan to defend. The region is among the most brutal terrains on Earth, a melange of craggy mountains and parched desert, where temperatures can range from below freezing in the winter to well over 120 degrees in summer.
On this harsh tableau, on any given day the smugglers may kill the Iranians or the Iranians may kill the smugglers. This nation has lost more than 2,500 police officers and soldiers in the war against drug traffickers during the last 15 years, from lowly police privates to army generals whose helicopters were shot down with Stinger missiles. More than 100 died in 1999, including 36 police officers captured in an incident in November by traffickers and executed after being tortured.
No one knows how many smugglers have died. But Iran's prisons are bulging with the 9,000 or so apprehended since the early 1980s.
To give an example of the scale of the struggle, according to United Nations statistics:
* Each year the Iranians seize 90% of all opium confiscated worldwide by law enforcement agencies, and 10% of all heroin.
* The drugs seized by the Islamic Republic represent vast potential wealth. The Iranians say they have stopped 3 million pounds over the last two decades. The 77,000 pounds of seized uncut heroin alone--at more than $90,000 a pound--would sell on the street for about $7 billion. The Iranians routinely destroy it in bonfires.
* Iran has deployed 30,000 police officers along its border and mounted a massive construction effort--including earthen barriers, concrete walls, barbed-wire fences and deep trenches--in an effort to dam the flow of drugs. The works have included 80 miles of embankments, 22 walls sealing valleys, hundreds of miles of trenches 15 feet deep and 14 feet across, 12 miles of barbed wire, 100 military outposts and 16 border stations.
The problem is so acute for Iran because its neighbor, Afghanistan, accounts for three-quarters of the world's annual production of opium, a crop that last year was estimated at a record 4,600 tons. Drug-control experts say the Taliban, the extremist Sunni Muslim movement that has conquered most of Afghanistan, uses the drug trade as a funding source. As much as 90% of the heroin consumed in Europe comes from Afghanistan, and U.S. officials fear more of it is crossing the Atlantic to North America. Iran sits astride the most direct route for those drugs to reach Western consumers, either directly from Afghanistan or through Pakistan.
Many Lives Lost in Fight Against Narcotics
Officials here say that over the last 20 years, Iran has expended billions of dollars and many lives in a war on drugs that benefits Europe. The estimate for 1999 expenditures alone was $800 million.
Yet Iran's struggle has not garnered much attention because, for most of the last 20 years, since the Islamic Revolution, the country has been isolated diplomatically from the West.
"We do feel alone," said Mohammed Fallah, head of Iran's anti-narcotics effort. "Although most of the drugs trafficked through our country are aimed at Europe or other countries, most of the load is shouldered by us alone."
Only now that reformers aligned with moderate President Mohammad Khatami are in the driver's seat in Tehran have relations with the West started to improve.
That has brought the first acknowledgment from the Europeans of their debt to Iranian drug fighters, and a small but growing amount of material aid, such as four-wheel-drive vehicles, bulletproof vests and night vision equipment donated by nations including Britain, Italy and France.