Last month in a Los Angeles suburb, two Iranian students and another man were arrested on narcotics charges after they picked up a shipment of pictures of religious leaders, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, mailed from Iran. Hidden in the picture frames were 35 pounds of opium.
On the last Iran Air flight into New York in early November, an Iranian woman from Dallas "forgot" to pick up her suitcase. In it Customs Service inspectors found seven pounds of herion and three pounds of opium.
Last week in New York, authorities seized 53 pounds of herion in two suitcases on a flight from Rome to Kennedy airport.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials say the drugs all originated in what they call the "Golden Crescent," of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the global trouble spot that is also the world's largest producer of the opium used to manufacture herion.
Even more troubling than the drug seizures are the street signs that a crippling new wave of Golden Crescent herion is reaching the United States, enforcement officials say.
Undercover buys on the streets of New York last fall show that 60 percent of the heroin came from the Golden Crescent, up dramatically from under 40 percent in the summer. And requests for treatment by heroin addicts are on the rise again at drug abuse centers, according to Peter Bensinger, head of DEA.
In recent years, crop eradication programs in Turkey and Mexico have cut the flow of heroin to the United States, raising prices and lowering purity.
Until now, the countries of Western Europe have been the major victims of the spiraling opium production in the Golden Crescent. Drug overdose deaths in West Germany, for example, are double those in the United States, though it has only one-fourth the population.
Now the European market is saturated, according to Bensinger, and Golden Crescent drug traffickers are looking to the United States again for customers.
Complicating the picture, of course, is the political unrest in that part of the world. "Candidly, we're not in as strong a position as we'd like to be because of the tremendous instability in the [opium] growing regions," Bensinger said in an interview.
"We could snuff it [the opium crop] out, we believe, if we could reach it on the ground. But in Iran, practically, the government isn't in control of the country.
"We've been cut off from the type of cooperative enforcement efforts we had going in the region before," he said.
The DEA agent who visited Tehran, in October, found that many police officials with narcotics enforcement responsibilities had been purged by the new government, according to Bensinger.
DEA intelligence experts also have found that some Iranian citizens unable to move cash out of the country -- because of strict currency regulations -- have bought opium and smuggled it out instead, he added.
Kamran Movassaghi, a spokesman for the Iranian embassy here, said that the Revolutionary Council outlawed opium production four months ago and had ordered the execution of drug smugglers.
He accused the family of the deposed shah of Iran of trafficking in drugs, and said the Iranian citizens caught recently smuggling drugs into the United States are "products of the former regime."
A former employe of Iran's finance minister, for instance, was charged with trying to smuggle 1 1/2 pounds of heroin into San Francisco on New Year's Day on a flight from Tehran and Frankfurt.
Last fall, an Iranian student at San Francisco State College was arrested after accepting a package from Tehran, one and a half pounds of heroin hidden in a class table.
The student was driving a $40,000 sports car and lived in a $700-a-month apartment on a reported income of $1,200 a month according to DEA.
Bensinger said he did not believe the current government of Iran is encouraging the export of heroin to the west. But he questioned its ability to control the opium-growing countryside.
It is too early to predict what effect the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan will have on opium growing and smuggling there, Bensinger said.
One theory being considered by DEA intelligence is that the Soivets will shut the borders to smugglers and keep the mountain tribes too busy to trade in opium. On the other hand, it is possible the tribesmen will need their key cash crop all the more, to sell to buy guns to fight the Russians.
DEA and State Department officials hope to have some say in the $400 million aid package the Carter administration is preparing to help neighboring Pakistan.
Though it has not come up in the public debate, an official of the State Department's bureau of international narcotics matters said last week that an effort will be made to handle some drug fighting provisions in the program.
Bensinger said his agency has found evidence of heroin processing labs in Pakistan for the first time, though the great majority of the oium from the Golden Crescent is converted into heroin -- 10 pounds of opium makes one pound of heroin -- in labs in Turkey.
From there, the heroin is carried by sea or overland through the Balkans to Yugoslavia, according of DEA intelligence. It then either heads north for Germany and the rest of Western Europe or is routed through Italy or Sicily to the United States.
Golden Crescent opium and heroin is showing up on the West Coast, in part, because of the large Mideastern and Southwest Asian -- mostly Iranian -- population there, DEA officials believe.
Smoking opium has been a custom in many Middle Eastern and Asian countries for centuries and much of the recent traffic in opium to California may be for private use, rather than dealing, according to experts there.
Dan Addario, special agent in charge of DEA's San Francisco office said opium smoking is showing signs of becoming the new rage for the cocaine-sniffing set in fashionable Marin County.
Bensinger said he is more worried about the long-range impact of a new influx of heroin than a possible fad in California.
He said that at the end of 1978, only 17 percent of the heroin in the United States originiated in the Golden Crescent. The bulk arrived from Mexico, 45 percent, or the so-called "Golden Triangle" near the Thai-Burmese border, 38 percent.
At the end of 1979, Bensinger "guesstimated," the amount of Golden Crescent heroin reaching the States had doubled to 35 percent of the total.
W. Gordon Fink, DEA's intelligence chief, declined to place a firm figure on the extent to the Golden Crescent heroin influx. "The message is: fit's here, in quantity," he said.
John Fallon, head of DEA's regional office in New York, said in a phone interview: "I'm not saying we've swamped with it yet, but it's now the predominant stuff we're seeing on the street."
Recent street buys in a Hispanic area on the Lower East Side of Manhattan showed that the traditional Mexican brown heroin was "all but gone," Fallon added.
Despite the uncertainty of the political situation in the Golden Crescent growing areas, Bensinger said he is encouraged by the effort of what he calls America's "second line of defense" against that heroin. This is the governments of Western Europe, which for the first time find a heroin epidemic in their countries.
"We've always had good cooperation with the police officials in Europe," Bensinger said. "Now we're getting the attention of the political figures, the parliamentarians.
"They realize that these aren't American tourists showing up at hospitals and at crisis centers, but nationals of their countries, and the parents and TV and magazines are riding them about it."
Bensinger said he hopes that close cooperation with European governments and with other enforcement agencies there can limit the impact of the new flow from the Golden Crescent.