Saturday, April 4, 2009

Could drugs be key to US/Iran/Russia relations?

And no, I don’t mean getting the leaders of the three countries high... I wonder though if stemming the flood of heroin coming from Afghanistan could be a common point for the US, Russia and Iran to rally ‘round?

The poppy fields of Afghanistan provide more than 90% of the world’s heroin. The drug has long been a problem for the United States, but Afghanistan’s location in Central Asia means its causing headaches for Iran and Russia as well. Smuggling routes to Europe have become well established through northern Iran, while the former Soviet republics of Central Asia provide an easy path for heroin to get into Russia.

The drug as exploded into an epidemic in Russia, one that has gotten so bad Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calls it a threat to Russia’s “security” - estimates are that three billion hits worth of heroin are flooding into Russia from Afghanistan every year, enough to give more than 20 doses to every man, woman and child in the Russian Federation (Russia reports having five to eight times as many heroin addicts as the European Union). And heroin is causing problems in Afghanistan as well - cash generated by the sale of the drug is said to support not only the Taliban resistance movement, but corruption within the Afghani government as well (Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai, is alleged to be one of the country’s biggest drug lords).

The new administration in Washington has often talked about pressing the ‘reset’ button with Russia, while President Obama has reached out to Iran, including recording a message to the Iranian people to mark the Persian New Year in March. There is a definite desire to turn the page on relations with these two countries. But the issues the United States is focusing on; Iran’s nuclear program, Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion and American plans for an anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe, are issues too emotionally charged, ones with too much political capital wrapped up in them to expect them to be the thing that provides a breakthrough in US-Iranian or US-Russian relations.

So why not try to build a three-party consensus around combating the Afghani heroin trade? It is an issue without the baggage of the nuclear programs or missile defense, and is a pressing need to all parties involved (Afghanistan included). It could also serve as a way for Iran to participate in a cooperative, collaborative way with the same Western nations they have alienated with their pursuit of a nuclear program; and it could help to mend fences between Russia and the West. Cutting into heroin sales would not only weaken the Taliban, but also undermine some corrupt government officials as well, who thanks to personal connections have so far been basically untouchable (that means you Ahmed Karzai) - two things that will help in Afghanistan’s long-term development.

The bridges built in a US-Russian-Iranian anti-heroin effort could also later prove useful in getting Iran to suspend its nuclear program. It’s a project worth considering.
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