Make Iran anti-drug ally

July 06, 2006|By RENSSELAER LEE

WASHINGTON -- Though increasingly at odds on nuclear proliferation and other issues, the United States and Iran have strong incentives to cooperate in one area of mutual concern: containment of Afghanistan's $2.8 billion opium and heroin business, the world's largest.

Iran's interest in the matter is obvious: About 60 percent of Afghan opiate exports (opium, morphine and heroin) cross into Iran each year en route to consumers in Russia, Europe and Iran itself. An estimated 3 million Iranians, 4 percent to 5 percent of the entire population, consume opiates, the largest percentage of any country. Accordingly, Iran has to spend as much as $800 million each year, or 1.3 percent of its budget, on drug control, about twice as much in relative terms as the United States.

The U.S. interest relates largely to its nation-building objectives in Afghanistan, which are under constant threat from the centrifugal forces unleashed by the drug trade. As many observers have noted, access to drug-related funds supports the pretensions of assorted regional warlords and renascent Taliban insurgents, hampering the central government's ability to extend its writ beyond Kabul.

Additionally, Afghanistan's role as pre-eminent supplier of heroin to the European market heightens the interest of Washington's coalition partners in containing Afghan drug flows.

Because of Afghanistan's difficulties in suppressing the drug traffic, which now accounts for an estimated one-third of the country's total (licit and illicit) gross domestic product, U.S. officials see stepped-up enforcement on the borders of neighboring states as a near-term necessity. Washington provides some law enforcement assistance to Pakistan and to Central Asian states.

But a containment strategy is unlikely to work effectively unless coordinated with Iran, which is the transit country of choice for Afghan drug smugglers. Iran also might be brought into a long-term partnership with the coalition in scaling back Afghan poppy cultivation, the source of more than 90 percent of the world's opiates - for example, by contributing to underfunded crop substitution and alternative programs for poppy farmers.

Some currents of U.S. official opinion might welcome direct engagement with Iran on drugs. This year, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs issued a glowing report on Iran's anti-drug performance.

The report cited "overwhelming evidence" of Iran's commitment to ensure that drugs leaving Afghanistan don't reach its citizens and its "sustained national political will" in combating drug production and trafficking. Of course, the United States lacks direct diplomatic ties with Iran and maintains no counter narcotics presence or initiatives in that country.

Yet the absence of such ties does not preclude a relationship on drugs. For example, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana includes a Coast Guard "drug information specialist"; Cuba and the United States cooperate in maritime interdiction operations; and agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration visit the island to interview and extract information from foreign drug traffickers held in Cuban prisons.

A U.S.-Iranian dialogue on drugs wouldn't necessarily solve Iran's drug abuse problems or mitigate the burgeoning authority crisis in Afghanistan. Also, Iran and the United States might differ in their expectations of the type of political order that should take shape in that country.

Yet even a modicum of cooperation in an area of significant international concern would be a major step forward. Unlike the Cuban case, in which diplomacy is hostage to entrenched domestic interests, such cooperation might lay the groundwork for improved relations in other areas, or at least create a better atmosphere for more consequential exchanges on nuclear-strategic issues.

Rensselaer Lee is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and president of Global Advisory Services. His e-mail is

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