TEHRAN About 130,000 people in Iran become addicted to drugs each year, the Iranian police chief said, acknowledging the scale of the problem for a country on a key heroin trafficking route.
In comments published on Sunday, Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, who is also head of Iran's anti-narcotics agency, said some 930,000 people in the country of 70 million were addicted to heroin and opium, a figure rising to 1 million if other drugs are included.
Iran is a key transit route for narcotics smuggled from neighboring Afghanistan, which produces more than 90 percent of the world's supply of opium, to the West and elsewhere. Opium is used to make heroin.
Iran's eastern border areas are known for frequent clashes between security forces and well-armed drug traffickers Addicts are often seen on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere.
Last month, a U.N. report said Afghanistan-grown poppies fuel a $65 billion heroin and opium market that feeds 15 million addicts, with Europe, Russia and Iran consuming half the supply.
"Based on our estimate, an average of 130,000 new people enter the drug addiction circle annually on a permanent or temporary basis," Ahmadi-Moghaddam was quoted as saying by Hambastegi newspaper.
Ahmadi-Moghaddam also estimated that about 500,000 people had been treated and rehabilitated over a six-year period.
The Iranian judiciary is stepping up its fight against the drugs trade but a large part of the "narcotics mafia" is based outside the country, he added.
"These drug lords run their every day business affairs through petty drug gang members from abroad," Ahmadi-Moghaddam said, speaking at an addiction treatment conference.
Iran has won praise from the U.N. crime agency for its efforts to curb smuggling of heroin and keep it off Western streets. In the 1990s, Iran began to build physical barriers to make it more difficult to slip narcotics into the country.
More than 3,700 Iranian security personnel have been killed fighting drug smugglers since Iran's 1979 revolution. Drug trafficking is punishable by death in the Islamic state.
(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Robin Pomeroy)