QUETTA -- The Iranian regime is helping drug mafias exploit Pakistani territory to traffic heroin and other illegal drugs to destinations around the world, official sources and observers say.
The aim of this scheme is to generate money to prop up Iran's failing economy and fund the regime's proxy wars in the region, they say.
"Drug smuggling in Iran is a lucrative source of foreign exchange, and in some parts of Iran, local authorities are allegedly providing support to those groups involved in drug production and trafficking," said Mir Irfan Baramzai, a tribal leader based in Mirjaveh, which borders Iran.
"Iran's long and porous eastern border with Pakistan and Afghanistan is known as the main route of drug trafficking in the region. Iranian authorities are supervising several drug factories in the border areas," he said.
"The opium made from poppy harvested in Afghanistan arrives in Iran first and then is mostly smuggled to international markets," said Irfan.
"The Iranian regime has always been criticised in our region for its double standards," he said. "On one hand, the Iranian government claims it's taking measures against drug mafias, and on the other hand, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Quds and Basij paramilitary forces are patronising this nefarious business for financial goals."
Last year a report emerged saying the IRGC was providing "massive support" for drug trafficking in Pakistan.
"For a long time, our people have protested against the rising threat of drugs in the border areas. The drug mafias are getting out of control because of Iranian government patronage," he added.
"It is beyond doubt that the massive quantity of opium produced in Afghanistan is smuggled to different countries of the world via Iran; therefore, the Iranian regime is playing a major role in drug trafficking," said Muzamil Waheed, a Taftan-based senior security official who previously served in the Ministry of Narcotics Control.
"Despite our fencing, the 936km-long eastern border is mostly unsecured because of Iranian authorities' negligence, and the drug mafias operate fearlessly across the border areas," he said.
The Pakistani national anti-narcotics agency, the Anti Narcotics Force (ANF), and other law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in preventing illegal drugs, Waheed said.
"More than Rs. 11 billion ($65 million) worth of drugs have been seized during various operations in the Pak-Iran border areas of Balochistan since the beginning of this year," he said.
"Without Iranian patronage, the drug mafias could never succeed in smuggling drugs from the Iranian route to the international market. The international community must play a role in curbing Iran's sponsorship of illegal drugs," he added.
Financing proxy militias
"The influx of drugs from Iran is not only destroying our young generation," said Waheed. "It is increasing insecurity as the money from narcotics is being used by militants to buy weapons and other equipment."
"Iran is the largest supplier of narcotics in the region, and it provides drug money to proxy militias engaged in wars in various countries for Tehran's interests," said a Rawalpindi-based intelligence official on the condition of anonymity.
US sanctions have inflicted "a big blow to the Iranian economy and have degraded Iran's ability to expand its strategic interests in the region"," he said.
"Iran is running the global drug-trafficking network via the affiliated militant group Hizbullah, which has strong ties with international drug cartels," he said. "The Iranian airline, IranAir, has been accused of transporting drugs to Venezuela, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and some countries in Europe."
"Previously, the Iranian drug mafias were using the Shia pilgrimage in Pakistan to push drugs into Pakistan," he added. "However, strict security arrangements at the Pak-Iran friendship gate at Taftan have foiled such operations."
Another Iranian airline, Mahan Air, which is owned in part by the IRGC, has been a key vector in the massive outbreak of coronavirus in Iran and throughout the region, and is known by many as a "militia airline" for its use by the IRGC's Quds Force.
Reports suggest Tehran is financing Shia militant groups largely with illegal-drug revenue, he said, adding that the IRGC-linked Shia proxy militias -- the Zainabiyoun Brigade and Fatemiyoun Division -- have used such revenue to purchase weapons.
"The Iranian regime mainly uses the Balkan and Silk routes for exporting drugs to southern Europe and Central Asia, while more than 60% of the total drug traffic of morphine and heroin from Afghanistan goes to international markets via the Iranian route," said Maj. (ret.) Omar Farooq, an Islamabad-based defence analyst.
"The ethnic Baloch-populated region along the Pak-Iran border is a hub for those groups pushing drugs on the international market," he said. "Iran's role as a drug-transit country needs international attention."
Without the complicity of Iranian officials, it is impossible to run illegal drug factories in sensitive areas of Iran, he added.
"Some members of the Iranian drug mafia disguised themselves as Iranian pilgrims in the holy cities of Qom, Najaf, Karbala, and Mashhad" in Iraq to smuggle drugs to that country, Farooq said.
"Many reports have appeared in the media that Pakistani pilgrims were detained for smuggling drugs, but I think the pilgrims mostly did not give consent to carry the drugs," he said, referring to possible coercion.
"The drug mafias have a strong network in Iranian transportation; therefore, they sometimes smuggle drugs to Pakistan and other destinations in the personal baggage of pilgrims," Farooq said.