Join forces with Iran in the global war against drugs

President Clinton's decision last month to remove Iran from an official list of drug-problem countries should be enthusiastically welcomed. Not only is it a somewhat belated recognition of Iran's considerable attempts to fight the menace of illegal drugs, but it also points to the fact that the "agenda of negatives," which has beset Western relations with the Islamic republic in recent years, is increasingly being replaced by an "agenda of positives."

The issue of illegal narcotics and organized crime is an important but little-publicized area where Western and Iranian interests unambivalently converge. Whether it be in the areas of domestic consumption, associated crime, cross-border smuggling, or what to do about the unfettered production of opium poppies in the Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan, the challenges faced are broadly the same.

As in Western Europe and the US, so too for Iran, the consumption of hard drugs is a worrisome problem. Official sources in Iran estimate that out of a total population of a little over 60 million, 1.2 million residents regularly use opium and its derivatives.

Again, as in the West, the drug problem appears to be spawning a rapid rise in unorganized and opportunistic crime. Increasingly, new buildings are being constructed with anti-burglar bars; muggings and car crime in Iranian cities have been rapidly rising in the 1990s. Iran has not, however, experienced the narco-corruption of government that affects other countries in the traffickers' path.

Iran's antidrug strategy has focused on trying to prevent cross-border smuggling, either directly from Afghanistan or via Pakistan. To that end, the Drug Control Headquarters -- which enjoys the patronage of President Mohamad Khatami and the indefatigable direction of Gen. Mahmood Fallah -- has used a variety of approaches. These extend from the deployment of 30,000 law enforcement officers in the border areas, to the use of concrete barriers to make isolated valleys impassable, to digging canals and ditches. Iranian authorities estimate that they seize around 30 percent of the drug consignments that traffickers try to move into the country.

In its prosecution of what amounts to a low-intensity war, Iranian authorities have drawn praise from specialist observers. Foreign diplomats based in Tehran speak highly of Iran's interdiction efforts, while executive director of the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP), Pino Arlacchi, has publicly lauded Iran's efforts. After financing one successful project involving Iran, the UNDCP is poised to open an office in Tehran this year, and an expanded program of cooperation is expected.

With roughly 80 percent of the hard drugs hitting the streets in Western Europe coming from Afghanistan and transiting Iran, and concerns in both Iran and the West about the aggressively puritanical nature of the Taliban, a second, new area of convergence lies in how best to address the future of Afghanistan. Both sides have an interest in containing the Taliban and promoting an equitable political accommodation in Afghanistan that includes all major communities - contrasted to the narrow sectarianism of the Taliban.

Iran's increasing frustration with the Taliban's perceived protection of Afghanistan's main opium cultivation was an important reason for the sharp rise in border tensions between the two countries last autumn. The deployment of 300,000 Iranian troops on the Afghan border did, however, result in a dramatic falloff in drugs smuggled into Iran.

Cooperation against illicit drugs and the containment of the Taliban are but two items on the newly emerging agenda of positives. One could add to this list of potential positives: cooperation with Western companies in increasing Iran's oil and gas production capacity; promotion of peace and stability in the Persian Gulf, where the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has been so pivotal over the past two years; the containment of Saddam Hussein's Iraq; and the achievement of peace and stability in the Caspian Sea area, as its economic worth begins to be exploited.

While the agenda of positives has increased, the old agenda of negatives has dwindled. The agreement between the British and Iranian governments in New York in September removed the Salman Rushdie death edict as a negative part of the bilateral equation. Meanwhile, the accusation that Iran was somehow responsible for the difficulties experienced over the last three years in Arab-Israeli peacemaking has never been convincing.

This is not to say that the agenda of negatives has entirely disappeared. Concerns persist about some aspects of human rights in Iran, for example. Moreover, in the case of Iran-US relations, problems still remain as to how best tactically to advance bilateral ties in a durable way, given internal Iranian sensitivities.

One way in which to do this is not to be shy in acknowledging Iran's constructive approach in the important area of combating hard drugs. For taking a step in this direction, Clinton should be congratulated.

•Philip Robins is university lecturer in Middle East politics and a Fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford.

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