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Poppy proliferation
Opium production and consumption in Afghanistan and Iran

February 23, 2007

I teach courses on modern Iranian politics and culture at Stanford University. A couple of years ago agreed to publish some of the best papers written for these classes. Last quarter, I taught a course on US relations with Iran. Mathew McLaughlin presented a fascinating, and frightening paper on the opium trade and production in Afghanistan and how it impacts Iran. Many of those who live in Iran, or who have traveled there or a brief visit, share the opinion that addiction to drugs -- from opium and heroin to crack cocaine other “designer” drugs -- is one of the most serious problems facing the country. McLaughlin’s paper looks at the problem at its source of production from the sober point of view of scholarship, and free from the frills of ideology.

Abbas Milani
Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies,
Stanford University

Opium Production and consumption in Afghanistan and Iran
Mathew McLaughlin
Stanford University

Preeta Bannerjee, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), stated that Afghan opium production in 2006 “is pretty much out of control” (“UN Agency”). Whereas Afghan opium production in 1996 was estimated to be about 2,099 metric tons, the country’s opium production in 2006 is predicted to reach 6,100 metric tons -- or about 92 percent of the world’s entire opium supply (“Afghan opium”). Afghanistan’s role as the primary producer and global distributor of opium has had devastating consequences upon the populations of its neighboring countries, particularly Iran. Up to 89 percent of Afghanistan’s opium in any given year is transported through its neighbors’ borders for eventual sale in European markets (“Illicit Drugs”). Iranian drug control authorities estimate that about half of all European-bound opium is trafficked through Iran (“Illicit Drugs”). It should be no surprise, then, that Iran -- once a major producer of opium itself and now a neighbor of the world’s largest opium producer -- has struggled for decades with high rates of opiates addiction among its population. By comparing Iranian drug use statistics in 1970 and in 2000, one can observe that the number of opiates abusers (those individuals abusing either opium, heroin, or hashish) in Iran has more than tripled from about 620,000 in 1975 to at least 2 million in 2000 (McLaughlin 739-46, Raisdana, 160). Despite this bleak picture, an unlikely solution seemed to have materialized in 2000 when Afghanistan -- for reasons that are highly debated -- announced that it would begin a domestic opium elimination program. All evidence from 2000-2001 seems to point to the fact that the Taliban was sincere in its efforts. According to a UNODC 2006 report, Afghan opium production in metric tons dropped from 3,300 in 2000 to 185 in 2001 (Chossudovsky). However, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 ruined all hope for a quick and easy solution to Iran’s opium problems. The U.S. and its allies displaced the Taliban and replaced the regime with a decentralized government with little direct military control over Afghanistan’s population. Since then, opium production in Afghanistan has skyrocketed, and smuggling across Iranian borders is at a new historic high (Chossudovsky). Most of the blame for the rise in opium production can be placed on Washington which has refused to contribute the necessary military and monetary efforts needed to combat Afghan opium production. In the following paper, I will argue the United States’ failure to commit the needed military and monetary assets to subdue Afghan opium production has served to further chill relations between Tehran and Washington.

Before delving into this complex subject, I would like to discuss briefly the outline of the paper. In Part I, I discuss Iran’s history of opium addiction from 1860 to the Islamic Revolution. I will then explore in Part II the relationship between Iran’s Islamic government and opium addiction. In Part III, I discuss the rise of Afghanistan as a major opium producer. In Part IV, I explore the Taliban’s ban on opium followed by a glance in Part V at the U.S.-initiated invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion’s impact on Afghan opium production. I then explain in Part VI what the United States is doing to curb opium production in Afghanistan and suggest in Part VII that Washington’s failure to combat opium production in Afghanistan has chilled U.S.-Iran relations.

Part I. Iran’s Addiction to Opium From 1860 to the 1970s

Iranians began to develop a noticeable addiction to opium in the mid-ninetieth century. As Professor Gerald McLaughlin notes, “[a]lthough opium has existed in Iran in some form or another for centuries, widespread addiction was not known in the country until [about 1860]” (728). The rise of addiction in the 19th century can be directly linked to three events: the increased global popularity for opiates, the introduction of drug use habits by foreigners, and a sequence of natural disasters (McLaughlin 730-3). First, during the 19th century global demand for opium increased (McLaughlin 730). This increase in global demand inspired Iran -- a country where opium had grown for some centuries -- to begin “an aggressive opium export policy” (McLaughlin 730). McLaughlin states that “existing poppy fields were rapidly extended and land that had been used for [other] crops [... were] put under poppy cultivation” (730). A consequence of this expansion of opium growth was that opium became more easily accessible within Iran (McLaughlin 731). Second, during the late 19th century the Iranian government began to award foreign businesses with construction contracts (McLaughlin 732). With the arrival of foreign workers came knowledge of opium practices. For instance, British officers from the Indo-European Telegraph Company, while building a telegraph line across Iran, “provided opium to their [Iranian] workers free of charge together with instructions on how to use it” (McLaughlin 733). McLaughlin asserts that “it was about this time [after foreign workers came] that opium smoking in Iran first appeared on a wide scale” (733). However, although Iranians had easy access to opium and knowledge of opium drug use practices, they may still have lacked the motivation to use opium. This motivation materialized after a serious of natural disasters during the latter half of the 19th century. Opium use was spurred on by a famine in 1861, a plague between 1871 and 1872, and then a repeat of those two events three years later (McLaughlin 731). Opium quickly became a crutch for the Iranian people during any natural disaster, and soon the users became addicts.

Addiction rates continued to climb in Iran during the 20th mainly as a result of poverty, unemployment, and understaffed healthcare. Probably the two biggest (and interrelated) reasons addiction rose in Iran was domestic poverty and unemployment (Raisdana 152). McLaughlin cites one survey done by the UN in 1975 focused on the characteristics of drug addicts in Iran; apparently, of the 100 people surveyed who were admitted into hospitals for opium addiction, 63 percent had wages less than 12 dollars a day (747). Furthermore, the spending habits of those interviewed in this survey revealed that their “earned wages and expenditures on drugs were almost equal” -- illustrating that these individuals either subsidized their habits through crime or lived in extreme poverty (McLaughlin 747). It is interesting to compare McLaughlin’s assertion as to why drug addiction began in Iran (relief from natural disasters) to Raisdana’s assertion as to why addiction continued into the 20th century. While poverty and unemployment do not possess similar features to natural disasters, the two do produce suffering at an individual level similar to the individual agony often associated with natural disasters. Another reason perhaps for the continued addiction in Iran is related to the development of an understaffed healthcare system in Iran. McLaughlin asserts that the domestic healthcare system before and during the 1970s was understaffed (729). For instance, the “physician/population ratio in Teheran [in September 1970] was one to 4,350” (729). McLaughlin asserts that the understaffed healthcare system prevalent in Iran before and during the 1970s forced Iranians to treat themselves for injuries and diseases. Iranians began to use opium “as a panacea for every ailment” (729). It is quite likely that those using opium as a panacea were those that could simply not afford to see a doctor in high demand -- a reality that reinforces Raisdana’s claim that poverty and unemployment in the 20th century sustained and promoted Iranian opium addiction.

It should be noted that various Iranian governments attempted to end domestic addiction to opium, but these programs failed because their mandates were either misguided or because these programs were not well organized. Certain programs that Iranian governments introduced throughout the 20th century were simply misguided; these programs focused too much on supply-side interdiction and not enough on subduing domestic demand. Considering the important role that poverty and unemployment played in sustaining and expanding the wide-scale opium addiction within Iran during the 20th century, an effective government program targeting opium addiction would probably be one that focused on curbing poverty and unemployment. A program that would probably fail would be one that ignored poverty and unemployment and focused instead upon supply-side interdiction. A look at several policies passed by Iranian governments between the beginning of the 20th century and the 1970s proves this assertion to be true. For instance, the policy passed in 1911 to ban opium importation, the policy passed in 1928 which gave the Iranian government monopoly powers of the growth and distribution of opium, the policy passed in 1955 that criminalized the production and consumption of poppy, and finally the policing programs implemented by the Shah that focused on patrolling the borders of Iran to prevent importation of opium -- all these policies failed to stop the growth of Iran’s opium addiction (Raisdana 149-152, McLaughlin 737-757). In fact, none of these policies even managed to achieve the modest goal of stabilizing opium addiction within Iran. Occasionally a policy would be passed by the Iranian government that focused on reducing domestic demand; however, these policies were often undermined by the lack of organization. For instance, the Shah in 1969 announced that Iran would begin to produce opium for the purpose of creating an opium maintenance program (McLaughlin 738). The purpose of the program was to provide opium to people deemed to be too old (over 60 years old) or infirm to go through the process of opium withdrawal. As McLaughlin notes, the program suffered from a high degree of disorganization (741). The members of the opium registry would often resell their opium to those Iranian addicts not on the registry. The government was aware of this flaw in their program, but little was done to close the loophole (McLaughlin 741). Lacking the right focus and sufficient organization, the numerous anti-addiction programs introduced before the Islamic Revolution were destined for failure.

Part II. Iran, Opium, and Addiction after the Islamic Revolution

The Islamic Revolution and the following creation of an Islamic state in Iran seemed to spell the end of opium addiction within Iran. The leaders of the revolution seemed intent upon thoroughly crushing addiction by whatever means possible. For instance, following the Islamic revolution in 1979, “Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali was given the responsibility of arresting and executing a large number -- probably thousands -- of addicts and sellers of opiate substances” (Raisdana, 153). Laws were passed that punished addicts and small-time drug sellers in a fashion similar to that of drug traffickers (Raisdana, 153). There would be no kind hand given to addicts; all rehabilitation centers were closed (Raisdana, 153). Finally, and probably most significantly, according to a member of the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), “Iran, which had cultivated drugs for years, managed to eradicate [the] growing of opium poppies in a year and a half” (Gouverneur). For better or for worse, the Islamic revolution created a government that was willing to take a hard stance against domestic drug addiction.

Besides clamping down on the internal production and distribution of opium, the Islamic Republic has also put an enormous emphasis on border patrol -- particularly on the border between Afghanistan and itself. According to Gouverneur, “Forty-two thousand soldiers, police and militia, a tenth of Iran’s armed forces, are deployed along the eastern border, 1,950 kilometers from Turkmenistan, in the north, down to the Indian Ocean.” The main focus of these forces is to prevent the trafficking of drugs coming in from Afghanistan.  Iranian anti-drug forces consistently skirmish against drug traffickers bringing drugs from Afghanistan. The Iranian Drug Control Headquarters (DCH) has claimed in some years that their forces killed up to 500 traffickers (Raisdana 153). But these military successes have come at a cost. According to, 3,000 members of Iran’s anti-drug forces have been killed while fighting these traffickers (“Iran’s Drug Smugglers”). Furthermore, there is some question as to whether the Islamic Republic’s military efforts (even coupled with its internal regulations) have been effective. While Iranian military forces have seized upwards of 250 tons of opium in a given year, the UNDCP estimates that countries only ever seize about 10 to 20 percent of incoming drugs (Gouverneur). As Gouverneur suggests, Iranian forces may be seizing high numbers of drugs per year only because there is more to seize. According to the UNDCP’s predictions, as much as 1250 tons entered Iran in 2000.

Like its predecessors, the Islamic republic -- despite its hard stance against opium addiction -- has struggled to lower addiction rates or stop the inflow of opium into Iran. According to Raisdana, “diminishing consumption [of opium] has been reported [... since the emergence of the Islamic Republic], but this is simply due to the fact that more and more users eat opiate substances instead of smoking them” (153). In 2000, the government released statistics that estimated there were about 1.15 million addicts in Iran and another 800,000 recreational or light users (Raisdana 159). Non-government affiliated experts at the Rehabilitation Center of Iran and the University of Social Welfare believe that the government is underestimating by about 500,000 people (Raisdana 159-160). Furthermore, these experts predict that there are additional one million to four million occasional users (Raisdana 159). With the current population of Iran estimated to be 68 million, the percentage of opium users (addicts, recreational users, and occasional users all included) could range from 2.0 to 9.5 million (Raisdana 159-60). While a comparison to earlier rates shows that the Islamic republic has succeeded in lowering the percentage of opium users in Iran, the raw numbers  (even if one uses the low estimate of 2 million users) show that more Iranians than ever before are addicted to drugs. The regime has also failed to subdue the inflow of drugs through its borders. As has already been previously discussed, high drug seizures only reflect the amount of drugs entering a particular country and not the success of that drug-fighting force (Raisdana 159). And as the UNODC points out, there was about 89,726 kilograms of opiates (opium, morphine, heroin, and hashish all included) seized in Iran between January and May of 2000 (“Illicit Drugs”). After converting this amount to tons (about 98 tons) and multiplying by two since the seizure rate was only recorded for half a year in 2000, one can estimate that about between 980 to 1960 tons of opium entered Iran in 2000. Despite its hard-line stance against addiction and the importation of opiates from Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic’s efforts up until 2000 seemed to have been marred by failure. But hope would emerge in 2001 when Afghanistan declared it would be an end to its opium production.

Part III. The Rise of Afghanistan’s Opium Trade

There was once a time not too long ago when Afghanistan was not the enormous producer of opiates it is today. In 1949, the United Nations issued a report concerning the world production of opium. In this report, Iran was chastised for being “one of the chief opium-producing and exporting countries” in the world (“Opium Production”). While the committee spent 25 lines of text outlining the threat that Iran posed to the world as a result of its opium production, half of that space was dedicated to Afghanistan’s opium production. The language of the section discussing Afghanistan was also much less fierce. Whereas Iran was chastised, the tone discussing Afghanistan’s production was quite neutral -- probably due to the fact that the committee had obtained little knowledge about Afghanistan’s production history since Afghanistan had last previously submitted records in 1937 (“Opium Production”).

However, Afghanistan’s role as a minor global producer of opium changed significantly after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan annihilated the nation’s economy. According to a report on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, “the Soviets destroyed the socio-economic fabric of Afghanistan by killing 1.3 million Afghans, expelling another 5.5 million, destroying crops and irrigation systems, bombing granaries, razing villages, mining pastures and fields, and killing livestock” (Millen). With Afghanistan’s economy destroyed, the anti-Soviet forces (the mujahideen) had little choice but to fund their war efforts by growing and selling opium (Lansford 144). According to Tom Lansford, these forces began producing and selling in such earnest that “[b]y 1984 [four years before the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan], 52 per cent of the heroin imported into the United States came from Afghanistan” (144). After the Soviets retreated in 1988, a civil war followed that further plunged the country in disarray. The trend of producing and selling opium that was started by the mujahideen in 1984 was continued by opposing forces in the civil war (Lansford 145). A look at a graph charting out Afghan opium production between 1980 and 2000 shows how Afghanistan’s opium production levels increased as the nation itself descended further into civil war (“Illicit Drugs”). For instance, according to the UNODC records, production levels jumped from 200 tons in 1980 to 1,570 tons in 1990 to 3,416 tons in 1994.

1994 marked an important year for Afghanistan and its involvement in opium production and distribution. In 1994, the Taliban emerged from Pakistan as a political and military force bent on taking over Afghanistan (Lansford 146-7). While the Taliban struggled at first to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, the group would eventually take over 96 percent of the country (United States Cong.).  In order to fund its war efforts during the civil war, the Taliban encouraged the growth of opium within the territories it held in Afghanistan (Lansford 155-6). The Taliban would apply a 10 percent tax upon any opium produced and sold within its territories (United States Congr.). According to the Drug Trade and Terror Network Hearings in October 2001, the Taliban “[would take] in $40 million to $50 million annually [in taxes on opium production]” (United States Congr., 115). The levels of opium production and distribution reached unheard of levels under the Taliban; Washington estimates that Afghan opium sales represented 80 percent of the country’s gross national product (United States Congr., 115). For instance, in 1999, the opium produced in Taliban-held territories was estimated to be around 4,600 metric tons or “three times as much as the rest of the world combined” (Lansford, 155).

Part IV. The Taliban and Its Gesture to Cut Down Opium Production

In July 2000, the Taliban surprised the world by announcing that it would ban the production of all opium within its territories. All statistics from within Afghanistan point to the fact that this ban was sincere. According to the UNODC, only 185 tons of opium was produced in Afghanistan in 2001, compared to 3,300 tons in 2000 and 4,600 in 1999 (Chossudovsky). An anti-drug chief in Iran commented that although he was not sure why the Taliban enforced the ban he and other officers had observed a significant reduction in the amount of opium crossing into Iran (Gouverneur). Further evidence that there was a decrease to the world’s opium supply could be witnessed by observing the skyrocketing prices of opium in and around Afghanistan. In July 2000, the price of opium in the local central Asian region jumped from $44 per kilo to over $400 per kilo (United States Congr., 17).

Furthermore, an in-depth UN survey of opium production in Afghanistan in 2001 confirmed that the Taliban had been quite successful in reducing opium production. According to the survey, “[a]n estimated 7,606 hectares [land measurement] of opium poppy was cultivated in Afghanistan during the 2001 season [...representing] a reduction in total poppy area of 91% compared to 2000” (Annual Opium Poppy Survey). While debate emerged throughout the world as to the Taliban’s motivation for implementing the ban, it is clear that the Taliban was effective in targeting domestic opium production.

Two camps of thought have emerged following the July 2000 decree as to why the Taliban was willing to cut off its major source of revenue. The first camp suggests that the Taliban announced and implemented the cut in order to win international recognition, particularly from Europe where most of Afghanistan’s drugs ended up (Hutchinson). According to Martin Jelsma (a member of the Transnational Institute), the UNODC had promised that any successful ban on opium would result in the Taliban receiving 250 million dollars from the United States as well as international recognition. The offer was simply too good for the Taliban to pass up although such a ban would have significantly negative consequences upon Afghanistan’s farming interests. The second theory suggests that the opium ban was a tactical move by the Taliban in order to increase its country’s wealth as well as its own budget. This theory is heavily advocated by the United States. According to the DEA, the Taliban stopped opium production within its territories to cause a spike in opium prices so that it could reap greater revenues from its 10 percent tax on opium sales. The DEA suggests that the Taliban further profited from the ban by slowing selling off opium reserves that it had been storing yearly (United States Cong. Senate, 17-8). The DEA’s theory would seem to explain why the Taliban was intent on making yearly plans for opium eradication as opposed to a long-term commitment (Hutchinson). Yearly commitments would allow for policy flexibility concerning opium growth whereas a long-term commitment would completely eliminate the Taliban’s ability to ever profit from opium production again. While it is interesting to ponder which theory is correct, such discussion is based on hearsay because the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would lead to the Taliban’s downfall even before 2001 ended.

Part V. Operation Enduring Freedom and the Re-emergence of Afghan Opium Production

Following the September 11th attacks upon the United States, the U.S. demanded that the Taliban hand over the mastermind of the attacks (Osama Bin Laden) to American forces. Bin Laden had reportedly been training terrorists in Afghanistan, and the United States was aware of a strong relationship between the Taliban and Bin Laden. The Taliban refused to obey American demands, and America launched a military act (dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom”) upon Afghanistan in retaliation for harboring a high-profile terrorist. The war’s impact on 21st century politics has been well documented, but the implications of the war upon Afghanistan’s opium production have been overlooked. Opium production has re-emerged stronger than ever due to the existence of a weak, decentralized government in Kabul and severe poverty in the agriculture sector.

Following the successful destruction of the Taliban regime, the United States sought to rebuild Afghan political stability by creating a strong centralized government located in Kabul. The United States began the process by appointing a transitional government, but without a strong military, the new government had no way to enforce its will in a country that had become quite fractured (“Soviet war in Afghanistan”). In light of the central government’s weaknesses, the United States and the transitional government had to rely upon a rather rocky alliance with local warlords in order to assure that Afghanistan would remain politically stable. However, the attempts to include warlords in the national building process may have been a miscalculation. According to one report on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, “[i]t may surprise some to know that the main purveyors of Afghanistan’s continued lawlessness are the warlords [with whom the United States has relied upon for political stability]” (Millen). America’s reliance upon the warlords for political stability may have given warlords the opportunity to grow and sell opium with impunity (Millen). As noted in a report, warlords will often use the money gained from producing and selling opium to finance their private militias (Millen). Until the Afghan central government can enforce its own laws without the aid of warlords, these warlords will continue participating in opium production knowing full well that the United States and its allies will not risk angering them.

The other factor in the re-emergence of opium production is the extreme poverty of many farmers; ironically, some of responsibility for farmers’ poverty lies with the Taliban’s ban on opium which denied farmers the ability to grow and sell their most profitable crop. According to, following the U.S.-initiated war into Afghanistan, “poor farmers devastated by war [were tempted to] turn back to the poppy and the badly needed cash it brings” (“Afghanistan’s Real War”). The same article explains that market prices for opium in 2002 were nine times higher than they were in June 2001, so any farmer who was willing to grow and sell opium in 2002 would have made a strong profit. It is interesting to note that the Taliban’s ban between 2000 and 2001 probably played a significant role in encouraging farmers to grow poppy in 2002 for two particular reasons. First, the ban raised world opium prices -- making a previously attractive cash crop even more attractive in the years immediately following the ban. Second, farmers who intended to sell opium the year of the ban were heavily in debt and had to sell opium the next year in order to pay back their debts.  Having been restricted from selling their most profitable product during 2001, many farmers “who had borrowed money to cope with the drought [... prevalent in 2000 and 2001... ] found themselves unable to repay their debts [to traffickers]” (Ghobti). With debts to pay back, many farmers in Afghanistan in 2002 had an extra incentive to produce opium.

Kabul’s over-reliance upon warlords coupled with the economic situation of farmers following the U.S.-initiated invasion of Afghanistan essentially guaranteed a re-emergence of opium production in Afghanistan. What surprised many observers were not the return of production but the high levels of production that accompanied its return. With little domestic oversight from Kabul, warlords and farmers were free to grow and sell as much opium as they wanted. According to the UNODC, opium production levels in 2002 were greater than production levels in 2000 by 100 tons (Chossudovsky). Opium production continued its upward ascent getting as high as 4,200 tons of opium production in 2004 (Chossudovsky). A small drop-off in production in 2005 (3,800 tons) may have given some UN officials hope that opium production would level-off, but early estimates placed opium productions for 2006 at 6,100 tons -- or about 92 percent of the world’s output of opium production (Chossudovsky). With over 400,000 acres needed to produce 6,100 tons, it is clear that the coalition eradication program -- estimated to have destroyed only 38,000 acres -- is woefully unsuccessful (“Afghanistan and Opium”). Such high growth rates between 2002 and 2006 illustrates why Bannerjee’s comments at the beginning of this paper were quite accurate.

While opium production levels have soared since 2002 to previously unimagined heights, coalition forces have attempted to reduce opium production through economic programs. Two programs are notable for their focus on providing economic incentives for growing crops other than opium; but as will be explained, both programs had significant, unforeseen negative consequences that only reinforced opium production in Afghanistan. The first program, adopted by the British, sought to pay Afghan farmers to grow crops other than opium (Millen, 16). But the program “backfired because it prompted other farmers to start growing poppies in order to enjoy the windfall as well” (Millen, 16-17). In other words, a decrease in Afghan farmers growing poppy meant that world supply decreased and price skyrocketed -- inspiring other Afghan farmers either to grow more opium or to begin growing opium. The second strategy was adopted and executed by the United Nations. The UN’s strategy was to promote the production of wheat. However, the UN undermined its own efforts by “import[ing] wheat into Afghanistan at the same time Afghan farmers were growing wheat” -- thus driving down the domestic market price for wheat (Millen, 17). In fact, the failure of the program only served to promote the increase in poppy cultivation because the wheat market had been significantly weakened (Millen, 17). Both of these strategies relied upon only economic incentives to eliminate poppy cultivation, but in each case farmers realized that their best economic bet was to grow poppy.

Part VI. The United States and Efforts to Lower Opium Production

While the UN and Britain have attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to decrease the exploding growth of opium production in Afghanistan, the United States has done little either militarily or economically to aid in the fight against Afghan opium production. Concerning its military involvement, as recently as a few days ago the Los Angeles Times reported that Pentagon “has resisted entreaties from U.S. anti-narcotics officials to play an aggressive role in the faltering campaign to curb the country’s opium trade” (Meyer). The Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. military forces, when pursuing terrorists, have in fact actively ignored the obvious production and movement of opium within Afghanistan (Meyer). Furthermore, DEA requests for military air-strikes against drug facilities have been ignored on numerous occasions because the military claimed that such an attack would “create a disturbance in an area where [the military was] trying to chase down terrorists and the Taliban” (Meyer). In terms of its economic contributions focused upon reducing opium production, the United States has contributed little. It is true that in 2004 the United States contributed 2.2 billion dollars to Afghanistan, and in 2005 Washington contributed another 929 million dollars in aid (Hartung). However, about 80 percent of this money was set aside for military projects or long-term economic development plans (Hartung). Little money has been contributed by Washington that might be used to pay off farmers to avoid growing opium. America is the foreign nation most responsible for the recent re-emergence of opium production mainly because Washington has failed to contribute any assets of value to lower opium production.

The United States does not seem particularly intent upon lowering opium production within Afghanistan for two reasons. First, Washington realizes that the majority of drugs entering its borders come from Latin America and not from Afghanistan, and therefore contributing significant military and economic assets might be detrimental towards its drug fight in Latin America. According to the DEA, “only an estimated 5 percent of illicit opiates consumed in the United States comes [sic] from Afghanistan” (United States Cong., 10). Even with Afghanistan producing 92 percent of the world’s opium, there seems little incentive for the U.S. to contribute the assets needed when other regions of the world are more responsible for opiate addiction within the United States. Second, the U.S. policy makers seem to believe (or at least articulate) the fear that actively pursuing a policy against opium production may anger warlords and cause a civil war. According to Raymond Millen, any strategy that focuses on undermining warlord power confrontationally (such as eradicating poppy fields within their domain of influence) will lead to political and military instability in Afghanistan. The U.S. military directly admits that this fear has been a factor in their refusal to consider drug eradication as part of its operational mandate in Afghanistan. According to the Los Angeles Times, “[m]ilitary officials [... ] fear that cracking down on opium traffickers [as well as poppy fields] could alienate the Afghan people and warlords who profit from the trade [of opium]” (Meyer). Suffice to say, despite the challenges to fighting opium production in Afghanistan, the United States’ strategy of ignoring it will only make the problem worse and anger neighbors (such as Iran) who have to deal with the consequences of Washington inaction.

Part VII. Opium’s Influence on U.S.-Iran Relations

As the levels of opium production have increased in Afghanistan, so has the amount of opium entering into Iran. As has been previously discussed in this paper, Iran has constantly struggled with stopping the importation of opiates from Afghanistan -- even before Afghanistan began to produce 92 percent of the world’s opium supply. Such a large increase in Afghanistan’s production of opium poses a serious social and economic threat for Iran whose population already has high addiction levels. As supply increase in Afghanistan, prices in Iran for opium decrease; this decrease makes consumption by the poor and unemployed more likely. In fact, so much opium has flooded across the Iranian border during the last few years that opium is easier to obtain than whiskey and can also be significantly cheaper to purchase (Chamka).

It has become clear that Tehran is beginning to become frustrated over the slow progress of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, a high-ranking Iranian official “criticized American and British efforts in Afghanistan because of the failure to stop drug trafficking [... and] accused them of wanting to legalize opium cultivation” (“Iran, Afghanistan Continue”). A few other leaders, such as the Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani demanded that the coalition forces in Afghanistan use chemical sprays to reduce poppy cultivation (“Iran, Afghanistan Continue”). Leaders in Iran seem to be placing the blame for Afghanistan’s increasing opium production squarely on coalition forces with a military presence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, on occasion, Iranian leaders have suggested that they will stop combating the trafficking of opium through its borders (Mirzai). Some long-discussed plans would involve opening drug corridors in Iran for the easy passage of opium smugglers on their way to European markets (Raisdana 154). Such a policy could prove devastating for European countries.


Taking into consideration the current standoff between Iran and the United States concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions, any increase in Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan to reduce opium production would probably go a long way in normalizing relations with Iran. Furthermore, it may suit Washington’s interests to use Iran’s desire for lower Afghan opium production as a bargaining chip during any discussions between Tehran and Washington concerning Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.  America is in the privileged position of knowing that Iran has had a long-standing battle against opium and is seeking means to win the war once and for all. Furthermore, with its military and economic presence in Afghanistan, it is not unreasonable to assume that the United States could bring about a relatively swift decline in Afghan opium production. Instead of waiting for Afghan opium to hit American streets before taking action, America could use the issue of Afghan opium production to secure a greater foreign policy goal: a non-nuclear Iran. Comment

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Millen, Raymond A. “Afghanistan: Reconstructing A Collapsed State.” Strategic Studies Institute. April 2005.

Mirzai, Dariush. “Iran’s new threat against Europe: drug trafficking.” 5 July 2006.

Opium Production Throughout the World.” 1 January 1949.

Raisdana, Fariborz and Ahmad Gharavi Nahkjavani. “The Drug Market in Iran.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Volume 582 (2002): 149-166.

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For letters section
To Mathew McLaughlin

Abbas Milani


The Pursuit of Pleasure
Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900
by Rudi Matthee

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