Drug-related violence has spilled into the Caucasus. Regional officials say heavily armed drug gangs wage pitched battles with police and border guards, sometimes using weapons and military hardware taken from battlefields in Afghanistan and Iran.
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 personnel 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,” Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, Iran’s national police chief, assured drug-enforcement officials from 11 countries who met at an Interpol conference this year in Tehran.
But U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say Iran has paid far less attention to the flow of drugs out of the country than into it, often failing to cooperate with overseas counterparts attempting to track the flow.
“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 Revolutionary Guard Corps with a long history of smuggling contraband, according to U.S. officials, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to discuss 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.
“Both of these organizations are now heavily involved in the global drug trade,” Michael Braun, the former operations chief for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said at a congressional hearing in February. “Their participation in that effort presents them with myriad opportunities with which to build their terrorist and criminal capacity in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere.”
Iran is hardly the only country tied to the region’s drug trade. Huge profits from sales of narcotics and methamphetamine have attracted criminal gangs from Russia, Turkey and Central Asian states.