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Geopolitics

Are Iran And The Taliban Colluding In The Drug Trafficking Business?

Iran is reacting mildly to recurring Taliban provocations on its frontier. Is this due to diplomatic weakness, policy incompetence or is there some murky complicity inside Iran with the Afghan drug trade?

Image of Afghan men consuming drugs on a street in Kabul.

Afghan men consume drugs on a street in Kabul.

Hamed Mohammadi

-Analysis-

After about a week-long exchange of fire between Taliban forces and Iranian border guards (at or near Sasuli in eastern Iran) and in spite of Iranian authorities claiming the "misunderstanding" had been resolved and peace restored at the frontier, late on May 30, the Taliban were reportedly moving guns and armored troop carriers to the frontier district of Islam Qala, in northwestern Afghanistan.

On social media, the Taliban have been posting boastful videos, with one showing fighters on an armored vehicle cheering the prospect of a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Another video shows a Taliban commander, Abdul Hamid Khurasani, warning Iranian authorities not to test the Taliban's strength, telling them "we're the real Muslims because behind the scenes, you're with the West." If Afghanistan's rulers were to order it, he warned, "God willing we shall soon conquer Iran."


On the Iranian side, while a lot of the Iranian materialis aged if not outdated, and even with the rock-bottom morale and discontent likely affecting Iranian troops, they would still need barely a day, using whatever is left from the Shah's army, to destroy the vehicles the Taliban have moved to the frontier. Iranian plane and helicopter pilots might even destroy them as target practice, though the real concern here remains the regime's inability to resolve a dispute.

Miscalculations, water flows

While Iranians might despair of their government's ability to manage diplomatic spats or their troops' resolve to defend the country, the Taliban have shown they are fully capable of exploiting the Tehran's passivity. Their brazen provocations are proof of that. Iran's leaders are in turn consistent in misinterpreting foreign affairs.

They imagined, for example, that the U.S. departure from Afghanistan would benefit Iran, when in fact (and not for the first time), the Taliban are threatening its security.

Inside Iran, differences over what constitutes the national interest have exacerbated Iran's weakness.

When the Iranian land army chief, Abdul Rahim Musavi, was asked in early August 2022 why skirmishes broke out on the frontier, he said it was because the Taliban were not yet "properly" established. The sides simply had to sit and talk, he said, to end their "misunderstandings."

But not only are the Taliban refusing to let water flow into Iran (through the Helmand river), their border troops have repeatedly shot at Iranian farmers and herders within range, or kidnapped Iranian guards, taking them into Afghanistan where they are beaten before the cameras! They have concluded the mullahs will not fight them.

Inside Iran, differences over what constitutes the national interest have exacerbated Iran's weakness. While Iran's president and foreign minister have threatened to vaguely "pressure" the Taliban over the various, unresolved issues, the Revolutionary guards insist on downplaying their gravity, effectively downgrading the government in the process.

One of their commanders, the legislator Ismail Kowsari, a member of the parliamentary national security committee, has told the website Asr-e Iran that Iran and the Taliban were in a "family dispute" or a "children's spat" at home, breezily adding: "May the souls of all martyrs rejoice in God, especially our frontier guardsmen and the five or three of them, where this happened. But there is no talk of a military option!" He was referring to the border guardsmen killed most recently, though he wasn't sure of the number!

Another commander, Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards' aerospace division, blamed "Iran's enemies" for fanning "such incidents."

Image of Opium poppies growing in a field in Samogay, Afghanistan.

Opium poppies grow in a field in Samogay, Afghanistan.

Sgt Christopher Mccullough / ZUMA

Share of the goods

While war is never welcome, Tehran's diplomatic ineptitude in defending Iranian interests is singular. One legislator, Jalil Rahimi-Jahanabadi has asked on Twitter what Iran's "abject" and "deluded" approach to the Taliban had achieved so far: "security on the frontier? Our share of the Helmand? Trade and development deals? Safeguarding the lives of our dear guardsmen and people living on the frontier? Safeguarding national pride?"

The Revolutionary guards are happy to defend the national interest then, as long as it doesn't thwart theirs.

The Iranian Tasnim news agency, an unofficial mouthpiece of the Revolutionary guards, recently cited an unnamed security official as attributing the recent shootout to a bid to stop a drugs caravan entering Iran. As frontier guardsmen opened fire on the suspected traffickers, Tasnim reported, Taliban on the other side "who did not know what was going on" also began to shoot.

What this means is that Iran's border guards were killed because of a filthy trade, which some suspect involves elements in the Revolutionary guards. More than 80% of the world's illegal drugs are produced in Afghanistan and a good deal passes through Iran. The U.S. Treasury Department has in the past sanctioned particular Revolutionary guards commanders for suspected involvement in drug trafficking.

The Revolutionary guards are happy to defend the national interest then, as long as it doesn't thwart theirs.

Afraid of Kabul?

One former legislator involved in security affairs, Hishmatullah Falahatpisheh, says the Taliban have duly intimidated Iran's leadership, which he believes explains such "unseemly" actions as the hasty handover of the Afghan embassy in Tehran. He says Iran must stop the flow of Afghan drugs through its territory, which he claims were earning the Taliban and traffickers more than Iran's annual infrastructures budget. But who is listening to him among those who wield power in Iran?

Some analysts have attributed recent tensions to low-level Taliban acting as rogues, though it seems unlikely low-ranking fighters could have had armored vehicles sent to the frontier. The Revolutionary Guards have in turn shown in the past - notably on the frontier with Iraq - that they will not tolerate hostile or even suspected manoeuvrings near Iran, and will resort to preemptive bombardments if necessary.

Iran has also acted beyond its border, in Syria and Iraq, ostensibly to combat ISIS. So why is it mollycoddling the Taliban? Curiously, at the time of these incidents, the Revolutionary guards announced they were sending troops... to the frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan.

The appeasement is in part explained by some genuine sympathies for the Taliban felt at the highest echelons of Iran's leadership. A military analyst whose name we are withholding told Kayhan-London the Taliban would never act this way if they saw Iran's as a "straight-acting" government. But, if the regime is taking a cut of its drugs, the Taliban "have the upper hand," he says, as producer and supplier, and inevitably "impose their will."

The Revolutionary guards may really see all this as a trifle: why make a fuss when you're making a fortune? Let the end customers — the Europeans and the West — suffer the consequences.


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Society

Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age

Women in Italy are living longer than ever. But severe economic and social inequality and loneliness mean that they urgently need a new model for community living – one that replaces the "one person, one house, one caregiver" narrative we have grown accustomed to.

Not Your Grandma's Nonna: How Older Women In Italy Are Reclaiming Their Age

Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones.

Barbara Leda Kenny

ROME — Nina Ercolani is the oldest person in Italy. She is 112 years old. According to newspaper interviews, she enjoys eating sweets and yogurt. Mrs. Nina is not alone: over the past three years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of centenarians in Italy. With over 20,000 people who've surpassed the age of 100, Italy is in fact the country with the highest number of centenarians in Europe.

Life expectancy at the national level is already high. Experts say it can be even higher for those who cultivate their own gardens, live away from major sources of pollution, and preferably in small towns near the sea. Years of sunsets and tomatoes with a view of the sea – it used to be a romantic fantasy but is now becoming increasingly plausible.

Centenarians occupy the forefront of a transformation taking place in a country where living a long life means being among the oldest of the old. Italy is the second oldest country in the world, and it ranks first in the number of people over eighty. In simple terms, this means that Italy is home to many elderly people and few young ones: those over 65 make up almost one in four, while children (under 14) account for just over one in 10. The elderly population will continue to grow in the coming years, as the baby boomer generation, born between 1961 and 1976, is the country's largest age group.

But there is one important data set to consider when discussing our demographics: in general, women make up a slight majority of the population, but from the age of sixty onwards, the gap progressively widens. Every single Italian over 110 years old is a woman.

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