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Drug trade booms as sanctions bite

Officers killed as violence increases

Even as Western sanctions ravage their economy, some Iranians are reaping a cash harvest from an unexpected source: a booming illicit drug industry that law enforcement officials say is producing record quantities of a powerful synthetic drug.

The surge in drug trafficking from a country with one of the world’s highest rates of opium addiction has alarmed the police and intelligence officials from Europe to Southeast Asia, where authorities say they are witnessing a flood of high-quality methamphetamine of Iranian origin.

Drug-related violence has spilled into the Caucasus. Regional officials say heavily armed drug gangs wage pitched battles with police officers and border guards.

In Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbor, naval patrols in the Caspian Sea are playing cat-and-mouse with Iranian smugglers who use modified speedboats. On land, captured Iranians have been found carrying U.S.-made night-vision goggles, and some have used bombs and armored vehicles to smash through checkpoints, Western and Middle Eastern officials say.

Iran has acknowledged that the country faces a serious drug problem. Its officials point to slayings of hundreds of police officers and border guards as evidence that Iran is a victim of increasingly violent criminal networks. Iranian officials enacted tougher drug laws last year as part of a crackdown that also led to the confiscation of more than three tons of methamphetamine and the execution of dozens of suspected drug dealers.

“Meth and heroin dealers are now treated the same,” Iranian police commander Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Mogaddam assured a gathering of drug-enforcement officials from 11 countries who met at an Interpol conference earlier this year in Tehran.

But U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say Iran has paid far less attention to the flow of drugs heading out of the country than into it, often failing to cooperate with overseas counterparts attempting to track the flow of drugs.

“Iran is a black hole,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement official familiar with drug trafficking in the region.

At least some of the overseas routes are protected by Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with a long history of smuggling contraband, according to U.S. officials, several of whom insisted on anonymity in discussing confidential assessments of Iran’s drug trade. The Quds Force is closely allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group with deep ties to drug trafficking around the world, including Latin America.

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