An Iranian police officer walks behind displayed narcotic drugs which were seized at border of Iran and Afghanistan, a known drug trafficking route, at the Milak border in southeastern Iran on Oct. 10, 2012. (Vahid Salemi/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Even as Western sanctions ravage their economy, some Iranians are reaping a cash harvest from an unexpected source: a booming illicit drug industry that law enforcement officials say is producing record quantities of a powerful synthetic drug.

The surge in drug trafficking from a country with one of the world’s highest rates of opium addiction has alarmed police and intelligence officials from Europe to Southeast Asia, where authorities say they are witnessing a flood of high-quality methamphetamine of Iranian origin.

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.

Iranian police officers stand behind narcotic drugs which were seized at border of Iran and Afghanistan, a known drug trafficking route, at the Milak border in southeastern Iran on Oct. 10, 2012. (Vahid Salemi/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“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.

But U.S. officials say Iranians are becoming dominant players, particularly when it comes to methamphetamine, the highly addictive synthetic stimulant. Iranian drug-makers are mass-producing a form of methamphetamine that is exceptionally pure — so refined that American drug agents say it is almost certainly made by professional chemists in pharmaceutical-grade laboratories.

Some of the drugs are couriered out of Iran through the Caucasus, where weak governments and porous borders provide an easy route to the drug markets in Western Europe and beyond, counternarcotics officials and regional experts say.

“The region could be the poster child for the nexus of crime and corruption,” said Richard Kauzlarich, a U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in the 1990s who is deputy director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, a research center at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy. “Unfortunately, it’s a problem for which there is no short-term fix.”

‘A needle in a haystack’

For Azerbaijani security officials, the challenge is as plain as the blinking lights on the enormous radar screen in Turkan, where the headquarters for the main coast guard station on the Caspian Sea is based. Here, officers in green uniforms look for blips that might represent drug runners trying to sneak across the maritime border with Iran.

Whenever an unidentified craft is spotted — often well after dark on moonless nights — coast guard patrols race to intercept the vessel before it can pull into one of the myriad coves and islands along the coast.

Lately, the Iranian crews have shown remarkable resourcefulness in such skirmishes, said Maj. Gen. Farhad Tagi-zada, deputy chief of the country’s State Border Service.

“The more we improve our techniques, the more they increase their sophistication,” Tagi-zada, a trim, mustachioed veteran of multiple scrapes with Iranian smugglers. “They are forever trying new methods to try to keep ahead.”

Azerbaijan’s fleet of cutters and rapid-response boats, partly paid for by U.S. funds, have used a combination of technology and doggedness to make some major busts. Tagi-zada is particularly proud of an arrest in August, when one of his ships caught up with a small Iranian vessel that had cut its engine to drift past the patrol in the inky darkness.

“The smugglers claimed to be fishing, but it was obvious they were lying,” Tagi-zada recalled.

After combing the boat and finding nothing, the officers decided to check the seabed beneath the vessel, convinced that the Iranians had tossed their contraband overboard. Divers searched for three days in 60-foot-deep water before finding nearly 25 pounds of heroin wrapped in cellophane, Tagi-zada said.

“They were very surprised we had found the stuff in the sea,” he said of the three Iranians, who face trial on smuggling charges. “It truly was like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Patrols along Azerbaijan’s land border with Iran have encountered drug gangs with enough firepower to fight a small war. At least seven border guards have been killed in fights with smugglers wielding assault rifles and grenades. Authorities said heavier weapons have been used by drug traffickers to punch holes through a wall built by Iran along its eastern border with Afghanistan.

“There have been incidents of wall-breaching involving cars packed with explosives and even tanks,” said a senior security official with the Azerbaijani government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to discuss a problem that affects diplomatic relations with Iran.

The official said Azerbaijan has notified U.S diplomats about seized military hardware, including what he called “extremely sophisticated night-vision goggles” that bear U.S. labels.

“Clearly, these were stolen or they were abandoned or dropped,” the official said, “presumably by forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

State Department officials declined to comment on the allegation.

The spread

Privately, Azerbaijani officials complain about what they see as Iranian hypocrisy in the regional drug war. They accuse Iran’s leaders of making a show of executing drug traffickers at home while doing little to stop the flow of drugs across the border.

Officially, the two countries are allies when it comes to drug smuggling, and their governments have worked together to shut down specific networks.

Few such channels are available for the United States, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran. In recent months, federal law enforcement officials have watched Iranian drug networks expand to take on new products and markets. Of greatest concern, U.S. counternarcotics officials say, is the emergence of high-quality laboratories in Iran for producing methamphetamine.

Because Iran’s base of indigenous meth users is relatively small, production of the drug appears to be aimed exclusively at foreign markets, said the senior U.S. law enforcement official who tracks the Middle Eastern drug trade.

“They don’t have a market for it, so they’ve been shipping it to South Asia and, more recently, to Western countries,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. “It is nearly 100 percent pure, and that is indicative of pharmacy involvement.”

Only a few containers of Iranian meth have turned up in Western countries, the official said. U.S. officials fear that may change.

“They already have the networks, and they’re good at moving stuff back and forth,” the official said. “Our biggest concern now is that they’re trying to open routes to the United States.”