Asia Times Online, By Matthew C DuPee
Late last month, Malaysian counter-narcotics police dismantled a 15-person drug
smuggling gang in the Klang Valley and seized a drug processing laboratory and
78.7 kilograms of syabu, a local term for crystal methamphetamine.
Malaysian state news reported that all 15 drug traffickers were Iranian
nationals, including two women, raising the overall number of Iranian drug
traffickers arrested in Malaysia last month alone to 32. Malaysian authorities
believe all 32 Iranian traffickers
comprised the same criminal syndicate who focused their operations in the Klang
Valley, particularly from a series of condominiums in the Ampang community.
Malaysian authorities arrested more Iranian smugglers last month than all of
2010, according to Malaysian statistics. Similar trends occurred elsewhere in
Southeast Asia last year. For instance, Thailand's Narcotics Suppression Bureau
(NSB) confirmed arresting 75 Iranian nationals for trafficking a total of 164
kilograms of crystal methamphetamine into Thailand throughout 2010. NSB
officials indicate Iranian nationals pose the most severe trafficking risk out
of all international travelers entering through Thailand's main international
Iranian authorities have praised Malaysia's anti-drug efforts while continuing
to ramp up their own tough anti-drug policies. On January 4, Iranian officials
passed new anti-narcotics legislation that for the first time imposes stiff
penalties for possessing or trafficking synthetic drugs, such as syabu,
and other variants of amphetamines.
Under article 39B of the Dangerous Drug Act, drug traffickers caught with
synthetic narcotics weighing more than 50 grams can face a mandatory death
sentence if convicted. Iran's previous law, drafted in 1989, required the death
penalty for both traffickers and addicts caught with either 5 kilograms of
opium or 30 grams of heroin without mentioning synthetic drugs. Although harsh
penalties against addicts have since diminished since then, drug trafficking is
punishable by death in both Malaysia and Iran.
On January 26, Iran's ambassador to Malaysia, Dr Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi,
announced Iran's pledge to help Malaysia combat its addiction to syabu and
urged Iranian nationals visiting Malaysia not to engage in criminal and
drug-related activities. Malaysian authorities recently arrested two Iranian
men smuggling drugs into the country by consuming 174 plastic capsules
containing syabu weighing 1.5 kilograms. Dr Mehdi Zahedi pledged further
cooperation between Iran and Malaysia to combat the burgeoning drug trade in
Malaysia, part of which is facilitated by the Iranian drug mafia.
Over the past two years, Iranian drug mafias have introduced
amphetamine-type-stimulants (ATS) into the Southwest Asian drug market,
initially providing highly purified grades of crystal methamphetamine, known
locally as shisheh (A Farsi word meaning "glass"), to affluent youths
and elitist circles.
However, its high cost and unfamiliarity among drug users left traffickers with
a limited market, so when production of ATS increased drastically among a
litany of clandestine ATS-producing "kitchens" across the region, Iran's market
price for high grade shisheh diminished. According to Iranian
counter-narcotics authorities, the price of shisheh continues to
plummet, and with it, addiction rates are soaring across a wide spectrum of
vulnerable segments of society.
As over-production fulfills the domestic demand for crystal meth, traffickers
are beginning to smuggle large loads of Iranian produced ATS to illicit markets
as far east as Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. Malaysia and other
Southeast Asian states are vulnerable to the scourge of synthetic drugs, and
the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the threat
posed by amphetamine-type stimulants in the region is now far greater than
The Malaysian methamphetamine market is extremely lucrative for Iranian
organized crime groups, who manufacture and sell a kilogram of crystal meth
inside Iran for around US$4,500 but can sell the same kilogram in Malaysia for
an astounding US$80,000. Unlike narcotics derived from plants, synthetic drugs
can be manufactured anywhere that has access to rudimentary equipment and a
series of commonly found precursor chemicals.
Dr Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi praised the new legislation and warned drug
traffickers that the new laws will severely impact the movement of
international drug syndicates and eventually "eradicate them". While European
officials and the UNODC consistently support Iran's effort to combat the threat
of drug trafficking across its borders and for cracking down on domestic
production of synthetic drugs, critics slam Iran for irregularities in drug
convictions and executions saying many political prisoners are falsely accused
of drug trafficking and quickly executed.
On January 29, Iran executed a female Iranian-Dutch citizen named Zahara
Bahrami, amid international protests from her family and Dutch authorities. The
Netherlands has suspended diplomatic ties with Iran following Bahrami's
execution. So far this year, Iran has executed 66 convicted criminals, most of
them for drug traffickers, although the independent Human Rights Watch group
counts 74 prisoners who were executed since January 1.
Iran executed 388 prisoners in 2009 according to Iranian state do*****ents and at
least 179 in 2010, according to independent media counts. Not all state
executions are attributed to drug trafficking as murder, rape, adultery, armed
robbery and the generic offense - moharebeh - or "enmity against God" -
are all crimes punishable by death.
Bahrami, who was arrested following anti-government protests in Tehran in
December 2009, was originally charged with moharebeh before being
charged with trafficking 450 grams of cocaine from the Netherlands to Iran, a
charge her family and friends vehemently deny. Malaysia executed at least 68
criminals in 2009, according to an Amnesty International project that tallies
global capital punishment statistics.
As in the past, harsh penalties for drug traffickers in Iran will likely have
mixed results. Higher risks correlates to higher profits for illicit smugglers,
hence Iran remains a major destination for cross border drug trafficking from
Afghanistan. Additionally, Iran's prison system is increasingly under strain
due to a dramatic increase in criminal incarcerations.
According to Mohammad Ali Zanjirei, deputy head of Iran's Prisons'
Organization, Iran is holding 35% more prisoners in its jails now compared to
2009. Over 204,000 people are currently jailed in Iran, or 271 out of every
100,000 people in the Islamic Republic. The inmate surge coincides with the
state crackdown against political protestors in December 2009, although
officials cite successful anti-narcotics operations for the ballooning prison
population. New anti-amphetamine legalization as found in Article 39B will
likely contribute to even more prisoners in 2011 especially as the Iranian
amphetamine market continues to explode and expand beyond its borders.
Matthew C DuPee is a senior research associate and specialist at the
Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.