West links drug war aid to
Iranian nuclear impasse
By SEBASTIAN ABBOT and
(AP) - Drug traffickers in well-armed desert convoys roll across the border
Standing in their way are Iranian soldiers and drug agents trying to choke off
one of the world's busiest pipelines for opium and heroin.
The battles - waged far from
the world's attention in the arid badlands of eastern Iran - represent one of the dwindling patches of
common ground between Tehran
and the West. The United States
has applauded Iran's
anti-drug campaign and European nations help fund the fight.
But now this international
support could be threatened by the standoff over Tehran's nuclear policies.
Western nations have told Iran that they could cut off any new help to Iran's
anti-drug units unless the Islamic regime halts uranium enrichment, which
Washington and its allies worry could be used to
develop nuclear arms.
The warning was a small but
potentially significant item tucked amid an array of trade and economic
incentives seeking to sway Iranian leaders to strike a deal. Iran has not formally responded to the package,
presented June 14 by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.
But Iran has
repeatedly said it will not back off uranium enrichment - pushing the European
Union this week to expand sanctions.
The EU froze assets of Iran's largest bank and updated the blacklist of
Iranian nuclear experts and companies, but has not yet decided on whether to
trim its aid to Iran's
In response, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, said Tuesday that the "carrot and stick
policy" by the 27- nation EU won't stop Iran's "pursuit to realize its
The incentive package has
been widely endorsed in the West as a way out of the impasse. But tying the
drug battle to the offer could be counterproductive, some U.N. officials say.
A "heroin tsunami"
could hit Europe if the drug interdiction by Iran is weakened,
warned Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the U.N.
Drugs and Crime.
"We should definitely
in this respect," he said.
head of the U.N. drugs and crime office in Iran, said the war on drugs should
be viewed as "a non-political area of mutual interest."
The new stance is a sharp
departure from the strong - but mostly behind-the-scenes - cooperation the United States and other Western countries forged
with Iran on Afghanistan
after the Taliban's fall in late 2001.
The West and Iran shared a common enemy in the Taliban, the
Sunni extremist group that gave shelter to al-Qaida
leader Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and now continues to
fight the U.S.
military and NATO.
Taliban fighters help
finance their battles by taxing Afghanistan's
opium farmers, whose poppies provide the raw material for heroin.
The West has had little
success reducing the huge opium crop in southern Afghanistan where the Taliban is
Overall opium production in Afghanistan has more than doubled in the last
four years - and smuggling the drug into Iran is the first step toward
reaching Western markets. Afghanistan
produced 93 percent of the world's opium last year, and about 50 percent of the
drugs leaving the country flowed through Iran, the U.N. Office on Drugs and
"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," said Barnett Rubin, an
expert on Afghanistan at New York University.
The incentive package
"intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan -
but only if it suspends uranium enrichment first. Iran claims its nuclear program is
only for energy producing reactors and insists it has the right to have uranium
White House and State
Department officials have refused to comment on how halting aid to Iranian
anti-drug units might affect the flow of drugs from Afghanistan or the fight against
Washington has recently accused Iran of providing support to the Taliban in
order to bog down Western militaries in Afghanistan, although it has
offered little public evidence. Iran
denies the charge.
The office of EU foreign
policy chief Javier Solana, who offered the Iran incentives,
also refused comment on the new anti-drug link.
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."
Establishing security and
delivering aid in southern Afghanistan
would do much more to tackle the drug problem and stop the Taliban, said
Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst for the
U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The United States
has spent $878 million since 2001 trying to wean Afghan farmers off growing
opium - even as production has skyrocketed. Washington
also has praised Iran's
Iran has built a series of dikes
and trenches along large portions of its roughly 560-mile border with Afghanistan to
stop drug smugglers and has seized hundreds of tons of opium and heroin.
Moghaddam said 900 tons of
narcotics were seized last year, including what the U.N. estimated was 80
percent of total world opium seized.
The efforts have taken their toll: More than 3,500 Iranian law
enforcement officers have died in clashes with heavily armed drug traffickers
over the last two decades, the Iranian government says.
"There is overwhelming
evidence of Iran's strong
commitment to keep drugs leaving Afghanistan
from reaching its citizens," said the U.S.
Department in its 2007 narcotics report on Iran.
Despite that praise, the United States does not donate money to the U.N.
to support Iran's
anti-drug efforts because of unilateral sanctions. The United Nations, however,
has received contributions from several European nations, including Britain, France
and Italy, to aid Iran's
But political disputes have
made fundraising to help Iran
difficult, Arbitrio said. His office has raised only
$8.5 million since 2005 for a three-year program originally budgeted at $20
million to help Iran
intercept narcotics smuggled from Afghanistan and other measures.
"Iran is a
front-line country," said Costa of the United Nations.