Iraqi military intelligence officials announced on Thursday that they confiscated 19 trucks loaded with hundreds of thousands of medicines smuggled from the country's western neighbor, Iran.
Describing it as "the largest drug smuggling operation from Iran," Iraqi media say the trucks were avoiding main roads in Iraq's Diyala province to evade customs.
Iraqi authorities have not yet announced the number of suspects arrested or their identification and nationality.
Responding to the news, an adviser to Iran’s Minister of Health, Alireza Vahhabzadeh, told the Iranian Rokna website, "It is unlikely that exceptional drugs" are in the confiscated shipments, and "according to what has been announced, the seized medicines have been purchased from pharmacies" inside Iran.
"Drug smuggling has been going on in Iran for many years," he said, citing differences in drug prices in Iran and Iraq.
The news of widespread drug trafficking from Iran to Iraq comes after Iranian government officials have sharply criticized the impact of U.S. government sanctions on imports of drugs and medicines' raw materials to Iran in recent months.
Over the years, there have been numerous drug smuggling reports from Iran to Iraq, including scarce and exceptional medicines.
A member of Iran’s Majlis parliament told the Rouydad 24 website in November 2019 that drug trafficking was "fully organized" and that smugglers "rented out" citizens' insurance cards to buy domestic drugs and smuggle them into Iraq.
Drug trafficking in this way reached its peak in September 2018 and caused a shortage of insulin in Iran, Bonyadi said.
The head of the Food and Drug Administration of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shaneh Saz, also announced the "widespread smuggling" of drugs abroad last May, saying that allocating foreign currencies at official rates for importing goods, and the outcome of it, had paved the way for smuggling medicines.
Meanwhile, there had been reports of smuggling imported drugs out of Iran.
Economic activists argue that since drugs are imported at the dollar's official price (42,000 rials), some people smuggle imported drugs and sell them at free currency prices in neighboring countries. Therefore, an incentive exists to smuggle drugs from Iran to other countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Corruption in the Iranian healthcare system has led to several controversial cases in recent years.
In July 2019, Iran's Minister of Health, Saeed Namaki, presented several medicine-related corruption cases, saying that "some" received two million euros (about $2.3 million) to import stents, but "imported electricity cables," instead.
Other cases included "$1.3 billion worth of imported medical equipment, outdated drugs and numerous violations in the Food and Drug Administration of the Ministry of Health.
In another corruption case in September 2019, the Minister of Health said that "due to the weakness of monitoring systems," one person had managed to import testosterone shots as coconut powder and cocoa powder."
Officials at Iran's Ministry of Health and the judiciary have not yet released a report on the fate of the official corruption cases related to drugs and medical equipment.
Authorities in Iran arrested the daughter of a former Minister of Industry, Mines, and Trade for cornering a part of the medicine market and accumulating assets through illegal channels, the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on September 8.
According to judge Assadollah Massoudi Maqam, the two defendants faced a series of charges, including disruption of the local medicines market, violating the food and beverages laws, and collecting more than $42 million through unlawful channels.
Earlier, the Government Discretionary Punishments Organization had announced that it had filed a lawsuit against Shabnam Nematzadeh for smuggling $1.5 million worth of medicine.
On December 31, 2019, the spokesman for the Iranian Judiciary said that Nematzadeh had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for economic corruption.
"The court has also sentenced Nematzadeh to 74 lashes and fined with some $345,000 on charges of creating 'major disruption in the distribution of public goods,'" the spokesman said.