September 15, 2011

Afghanistan’s Hidden Opportunity

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has become the world’s leading producer of opium and heroin.   This has humanitarian as well as security implications for both the United States and Iran and highlights perhaps the most obvious issue where mutual antagonism between the United States and Iran has prevented the two countries from working together to achieve common goals.
The majority of Afghanistan’s opium and its derivative heroin flow directly into Iran. While opium has been the drug of choice in Iran for quite a long time, the growing inflows of opium are creating massive social, humanitarian and law enforcement problems.  Iran’s approach to addiction has been remarkably progressive – utilizing methadone clinics and even needle exchange programs, as well as creating a social environment where drug addiction is viewed as a health issue instead of a criminal one.  But as Iran struggles with the massive inflows of heroin, it’s approach to drug traffickers has grown increasingly extreme.  The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) has documented the increasing use of executions performed in secret and with little respect for due process and transparency, even though Iranian officials have reportedly acknowledged this approach has been unsuccessful.
For the U.S., the main concern is that opium is a significant source of funding for the Afghan Taliban and fuels the anti-American insurgency that 100,000 U.S. troops are currently working to defeat.  Compounding the problem, the millions of dollars from the opium trade have helped corrupt the Afghan government from the ground up.
As a result of this common problem, Afghanistan seems like an obvious place for the U.S. and Iran to cooperate and start to build the trust that is necessary to complete any deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear program and avert a potential war.  In fact, the United States and Iran cooperated closely to help stabilize Afghanistan after 9/11, though this cooperation ended after President Bush labeled Iran part of the “Axis of Evil” and ignored several later overtures for cooperation.
This lack of cooperation has not changed under the Obama administration, even as stabilizing Afghanistan has become one of President Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenges and a major political liability.  Instead, the Obama administration seems to have effectively made resolving the nuclear issue a precondition to developing more comprehensive initiatives that could take advantage of the common ground between the U.S. and Iran on issues like Afghanistan.
That Ahmadinejad’s often incendiary rhetoric and Iran’s penchant for brinksmanship have undermined confidence that a deal can be reached goes without saying.  But these factors are compounded by the fact that the U.S. and Iran are stuck on the hardest issue, the nuclear issue, with a crippling lack of trust impeding any progress.
But now Ahmadinejad is repeating his offer to cooperate on Afghanistan and is saying Iran is prepared to stop enriching uranium to 20%.  Combined with the fact that Iranian diplomats are reportedly dropping their unrealistic preconditions and are saying they are willing to implement the safeguards needed to ensure Iran cannot clandestinely build a nuclear weapon, this is an important development.  Of course, the U.S. needs to proceed with caution; the case of the U.S. hikers demonstrates clearly that the infighting within the Iranian government continues to make diplomacy even more challenging.  But there is simply no reason not to engage Iran on a range of key issues – from the nuclear issue to Afghanistan to human rights.  In fact, on Tuesday Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the Washington Post:

“We [Iran and the U.S.] can have cooperation for Afghan stability and security. We can cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking and fight against terrorism.”

The only way to test the sincerity of what Ahmadinejad is saying is to reinvigorate diplomacy.  If Iran is bluffing, the U.S. can demonstrate that to the world and increase international pressure for Iran to get serious.  And if Iran isn’t bluffing, then we’re getting somewhere.

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