With Afghan opium and the heroin made from it flooding into Europe, Iran is one of the first bulwarks in the effort to stem the tide. But now, the West is threatening to condition further anti-drug assistance on Tehran's compliance with its demands that the Islamic Republic halt uranium enrichment.
The threat came in a package of incentives presented June 14 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, France, Britain, China, Russia) and Germany in a bid to get Tehran to change its nuclear policy. Iran has repeatedly said it will not stop enriching uranium, and now the European Union is considering wider sanctions, including ending cooperation with Iranian anti-drug efforts.
The package promised Iran "intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan, but only if it first stops uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it has the right to use such technology and says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.
Burdened with a 560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, Iran has deployed some 30,000 soldiers and police to fight opium and heroin smuggling from its neighbor. Some 3,500 of them have been killed in the past two decades. Last year, Iranian officials reported seizing 660 tons of opium, nearly three-quarters of the total seized worldwide. Despite such efforts and a draconian Iranian response to drug trafficking offenses -- the death penalty -- Iran suffers arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate.
But not all the opium and heroin smuggled across the Iranian border stays in Iran, and that had UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa warning that Europe could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if anti-drug aid is blocked. "We should definitely assist in this respect," he told the Associated Press this week. "Iran is a front-line country."
The UNODC's man in Tehran, Roberto Arbitrio, told the AP fighting the drug war should be seen as "a non-political area of mutual interest."
"Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan on this and other issues is not a favor we do for Iran -- but something we need to do in our own interest," Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading US academic expert on Afghanistan, told the AP.
"Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicized," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the top anti-drug official in Iran. "When narcotics reach Europe, it is the people, not governments, that suffer."
Such objections notwithstanding, however, drug interdiction has manifestly failed to reduce the supply, making the specter of increased drug abuse should aid be withheld an uncertain outcome.
Neither the White House and State Department nor the office of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would comment on the linkage between continued anti-drug assistance and Tehran's compliance with Western demands.