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Porous Borders: Iran And Its Eastern Problem

June 18, 2014
Iran Afghan Border

Via Romesh Bhattacharji.

Maps are the ultimate convenience. But depending on what maps are used, they can also be misleading.

Well-defined borders are just one aspect of our modern lives that are taken for granted. Neatly drawn lines on maps help reassure political leaders and the general public of their state’s sovereignty. Or so they think.

The actual value of borders in our complex reality isn’t as reassuring.

In many parts of the world, where the flux caused by migration, commerce, and technology is transforming societies, borders are ignored. This is often done for mundane, practical reasons. Yet there are occasions when the same mindset justifies illicit activity.

This is what’s bedeviling Iran, which shares land borders and good relations with the three states in its east: Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Two of these neighbors are trafficking massive quantities of heroin across Iran and therein lies the problem.

Based on the findings of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Iran’s shared land borders means it’s a conduit for the international drug trade. An estimated 50% of the world’s heroin transits through Iran, whose government is now waging war on smugglers.

Owing to its unfair reputation as a rogue state, Iran’s internal problems aren’t scrutinized as closely as its regional activities. This means its struggle with the fallout from the Afghan and Balochi drug trade is largely unheard of.

The Endless Fight

Like Mexico and Colombia, Iran’s approach to its drug problem is by seeking a military solution.

The pro-Iran Fars News Agency is among the few media outlets that consistently reports on Iran’s battles with drug traffickers and suppressing them is costing the government a billion dollars a year.

The methods have become more drastic over time. To halt the flow of people and contraband along its border with Pakistan, for example, a 10-foot wall and multiple watchtowers were erected during the previous decade, effectively halving either side of Balochistan.

The real headache is the 940 kilometer border with Afghanistan, where bunkers and fortresses manned by Revolutionary Guard personnel carefully watch the transit of people and goods from Nimruz, Farah, and Herat–all Afghan provinces. Despite large hauls of confiscated heroin, border police and the Revolutionary Guard are trying to find new ways for countering the flood. This includes possibly deploying UAVs and building additional small fortresses.

Iran, with one of the largest standing armies in the Middle East and Central Asia, has suffered 3,600 killed from violence on its eastern frontier. Although Iran’s ties with Afghanistan are generally peaceful–it hosts two million Afghan refugees–its heroic efforts against narcotics offers an important lesson on the vulnerabilities of modern demarcations between countries.