Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Philip Robins, St Antony's College, Oxford

1.  Up to 1998 relations between the UK and Iran were very difficult. However, the accommodation over Salman Rushdie in the autumn of that year drew a line under relations up to that point. The "agenda of negatives" that had dominated bilateral relations hitherto, and which was responsible for an often turbulent relationship, was replaced by a more mixed agenda of positives (hydrocarbons, export potential) as well as negatives (proliferation, limited progress on human rights).

  2.  An important and oft neglected issue in bilateral relations between the two countries is the issue of co-operation against narcotics and the primary and secondary impact of drugs. Together with the potential for commercial opportunities the issue of action against illegal drugs lies at the top of the positive inventory of relations. Anticipating that many of the submissions to the Foreign Affairs Committee will cover the more obvious aspects of the bilateral agenda, it is to the subject of combating illegal drugs that this memorandum will be directed.

  3.  Both Iran and the UK are victims of the scourge of hard drugs. Some 90 per cent of all heroin entering the UK originates as opium in Afghanistan and transits Iran and Turkey. For Iran, the problem of narcotics manifests itself in three ways:

    —  First, Iran is encountering a growing problem of hard drugs consumption at home. There are probably in excess of one million users of opiates in Iran today. [1]While many of these are older people whose habit is limited to the smoking of opium, there is also a real and growing problem of intravenous heroin use, especially among young males from the poorer districts of the cities.

    —  Second, Iran is subject to large scale and well-organised activities by well armed and sophisticated criminal groups, who smuggle opium over the border either direct from Afghanistan or indirectly via Pakistan.

    —  Third, with such large scale trafficking and consumption, Iran is vulnerable to or has experience of a range of secondary consequences. These include: crime against property, which has been spiralling in Tehran in particular in recent years; the undermining of the state through corruption, though to date this corruption is not thought to have acquired an institutional form.

  4.  There is no doubt that the Iranian response to the issue of hard drugs has been vigorous and costly. The initial response has been directed at trying to prevent trafficking and the entry of drugs into the country across the eastern borders. Official responses have ranged from the deployment of dedicated men and materiel, to physical attempts to block border access points.[2] More recently, the Iranian authorities have broadened their strategy to include activities beyond strictly law enforcement, such as public information and education campaigns and the establishment of rehabilitation centres.

  5.  Moreover, Tehran has shown itself to be increasingly well disposed towards international co-operation against illegal drugs. The executive director of the UN Drugs Control Programme, Prof Pino Arlacchi, has publicly praised the Iranian response; UNDCP opened a representative office in Tehran in June 1999. President Clinton removed Iran from the US list of problem countries with regard to narcotics in December 1998, a significant step given the inauspicious backdrop of difficult relations between Iran and the US at the time.

  6.  Low key co-operation between the Iranian authorities and parts of the British government have also been growing. The Drugs and International Crime Department in the FCO has forged close links with partner organisations in Iran. The head of the Iranian Anti-Narcotics Bureau visited London earlier on this year and had a cordial and constructive meeting with the Cabinet Office minister, Dr Marjorie Mowlam. The nature of the win-win potential of drugs co-operation for UK-Iranian relations was seen in the fact that the FCO permanent under-secretary Sir John Kerr chose the issue of the fight against drugs to make a £1.15 million donation during his visit to Iran in December 1999.

  7.  Nevertheless, more could be done to dovetail co-operation with the Iranians over the issue of illegal drugs, and hence provide a positive atmosphere for the conduct of general bilateral relations. Practical recommendations to expedite such an improvement would include the following:

    —  Help the Iranians widen their interdiction activity to include hard drugs exiting the country in the west, especially across the border with Turkey (the bulk of which is bound for Europe), rather than just at entry points to the east.

    —  Help increase the effectiveness of Iranian interdiction activities through the supply of relevant hardware to law enforcers, such as night vision equipment.

    —  Help the Iranians to benefit from our considerable experience of dealing with the demand side of hard drugs, covering everything from estimating the magnitude of the problem through to the areas of prevention and demand reduction.

    —  place the issue of joint co-operation against drugs at the centre of policymaking and bilateral relations, rather than having it function as a policy appendage, independent from the activities of the relevant geographical departments in the FCO and other UK agencies.

    —  Use our influence with relevant multilateral organisations, such as the Dublin Group, to galvanise international aid for Iranian efforts in the area of combating hard drugs.

16 September 2000

1  As in all countries where hard drugs consumption is significant precise numbers are difficult to come by. In Iran estimates range from 500,000 to three million (out of a population of approximately 62 million), with perhaps 10-15 per cent engaged in heroin abuse. Back
2  Iranian officials state that over 2,500 law enforcers have been killed in shoot-outs with drugs smugglers, who are often better armed than are the authorities. Back

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