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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 18:58 GMT
Mo Mowlam: My Iranian drugs mission

Mo Mowlam during her visit to Iran
Mo Mowlam - the cabinet minister responsible for co-ordinating drugs policy - is the most senior UK government minister to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution. She writes about her experiences for BBC News Online.

By Mo Mowlam

The drugs trade is a global phenomenon with no respect for national boundaries.

Likewise, the social problems the trade creates are felt keenly across the world.

To fight this lucrative, ruthless business, governments have a duty to tackle both the demand and the supply of drugs.

This was the main reason for my recent visit to Iran.

Drugs route

Although no drugs are produced in Iran, it is a route through which approximately 90% of all heroin that reaches the streets in the UK flows.

It travels over the long common border Iran shares with Afghanistan - which produces 80% of the world's opium supply.

This growing quantity of opium (and its derivatives) in Iran is driven by an ever-increasing demand in Europe and the USA.

War on drugs

For more than a decade, Iran has been fighting a bloody and courageous war against the drugs smugglers.

Ms Mowlam held meetings with President Khatami
In the last 20 years some 3,000 police officers have died in the fight against trafficking.

And not without success: last year, Iranian police and customs accounted for more than 88% of worldwide seizures of opium and 44% of heroin and morphine.

UK aid

The UK already does a great deal to promote international co-operation through the efforts of our police and customs.

We are contributing over 2.67m to UN efforts to combat drug trafficking in Iran, providing equipment and training for customs officers including night-vision gear for those patrolling the borders.

But transit of drugs is only half the story. In Iran itself drug addiction is a big problem.

Opium producing poppies
Almost one million of the 60 million or so people in Iran are thought to be drug users and drug-related deaths are rising.

My mission in Iran was twofold. First, to meet those working to combat drug addiction and swap ideas and experience on issues like anti-drug treatment and helping young people stay away from drugs.

On my first day, I opened a seminar on reducing the demand for drugs.

Tackling demand

At the same time, I wanted to talk to the Iranian Government at the highest level about what we can do to cut off the drug supply routes.

To this end, I signed a memorandum of understanding on drugs co-operation with Vice President Akbar Hashemi.

I also met other senior leaders including President Mohammad Khatami.

Frank talks

We discussed issues frankly: the Iranians emphasised what they see as double standards in the West where the bulk of world demand for heroin comes from.

They consider themselves victims of that demand.

Mo Mowlam heard the stories of Iran's young people
I raised the issue of human rights directly in all of my meetings. As coverage in much of the Iranian press showed, I was heard; but the Iranian government expressed the view that it is not for other countries to interfere in their domestic political affairs.

Although I had a lot of good meetings I learned most from talking to two groups of young people.

Listening to addicts

One was a group of addicts in a treatment centre in Esfahan, Iran's second city.

They taught me the power of their Muslim faith in helping them break their addiction.

This strongly echoes my discussions with recovering addicts in the UK who cling to strong beliefs in their families, children or religion to get them through.


The second was a group of teenage boys that I stopped to talk to in the square in Esfahan.

Impressively, they spoke in English with a clear intellectual clarity which reminded me of conversations with my 17-year-old stepdaughter and her friends.

These young Iranians talked about the problems of heroin addiction, what the government should be doing, and of their hopes for the future.

Downward trend

Although the United Nations estimates that 180 million people are consuming illegal drugs worldwide, the trend in the use of opiates like heroin in Western Europe appears to be downwards.

This, at least in part, is due to the efforts of countries like Iran.

I am left with some enduring impressions of Iran: deserts and snow-capped peaks; architecture ancient and modern; warm people and cold air-conditioning.

Co-operation between the UK and Iran sits comfortably in this context: distinct cultures and traditions with a common threat - drugs. Only through effective co-operation can we find a common solution. Let's hope we can achieve this sooner rather than later.

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See also:

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I smoked cannabis, admits Mowlam
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Mowlam has changed drugs debate - MP
25 Feb 01 | Middle East
UK backs Iran's anti-drugs strategy
19 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
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