The recent resurgence of opium production in Afghanistan, notably in Balkh and Badakhshan provinces (as reported by Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit) represents a frightening development for Afghanistan and its neighbors.
Although opium poppies economically sustain thousands of Afghan families, opium production has had serious consequences on the stability of Afghanistan’s regional countries, notably Iran and Russia. If opium production is increasing today, while the international community is heavily involved in Afghanistan, then the potential threat of opium production post-2014 will be even more alarming for Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Iran, with its serious domestic drug problems, is in a strong position to further build up its image in the region and take charge of a process aimed at curtailing the regional opium trade. With its close relationship to the Karzai government, such an engagement could not only potentially alleviate Iran’s drug problems, but could also help increase their credibility in the region, including with Russia. In order for Tehran to successfully combat the opium trade, they need to build on the momentum from recent agreements and take the lead on a regional approach with other countries that are facing similar challenges.
In light of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, President Karzai badly needs to increase cooperation and trust building among his neighbors. Iran is one of the few regional countries that have a fairly stable relationship with the Karzai government based on strong economic and trade relations (Karzai also receives cash from Tehran). Tehran can use its influence in Kabul to push for increased measures on curtailing opium production.
While it is widely known that Afghanistan is an opium hub, accounting for around 90%of global illicit opium production. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2010 report, 37% of all Afghan heroin travels through Iran before reaching its final markets. Tehran believes that the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan have ignored the drug trade and have allowed drug traffickers to roam free. Moreover, Tehran believes that they have not received gratitude for their strong efforts in fighting the Afghan drug trade whose destination is usually Europe.
Iran has almost done everything in its power to combat its serious drug problem as it threatens the stability of their country and exhausts its military and financial resources. National efforts have been undertaken to hold back the flow of drugs and Tehran has spent millions of dollars, simply constructing trenches, concrete dams, planting minefields, and deploying thousands of troops to secure its border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite some achievements in obstructing smugglers, Tehran’s measures, like other regional countries, have been relatively ineffective, mainly due to the vast organized network of the drug traffickers and their advanced technological equipment.
The bottom-line is that success depends on increasing regional cooperation as there are significant limits to what any state can achieve through fighting the Afghan drug trade alone. Moving forward, Iran will need to further increase its cooperation and intelligence sharing with the other regional neighbors under threat, most notably Russia.
The UNODC points to Russia being the country that has experienced the worst effects from the Afghan drug trade. Recently, the head of Russia’s federal drug control agency Victor Ivanov lashed out at NATO for not doing enough to curtail the production of drugs in Afghanistan. He stated that around 90% of the 30,000 heroin deaths each year result from the Afghanistan trade. In order to combat the drug trade, Iran and Russia have initially teamed up with the three other Caspian Sea states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan) and agreed to form ‘a Caspian Anti-Drug Information Center”.
While this represents an important step as it includes two regional powers, Russia and Iran, using their common interest in a similar manner to their strategy in Tajikistan, where they stopped Turkey and the United States from expanding their influence in the region, the pressing need for additional cooperation among regional countries is needed before true steps in combating the opium trade can occur, as the United States has shown no signs in changing their current position on ending the drug trade in Afghanistan (despite recent joint drug patrols with Russia troops).
In light of the transfer of security in Afghanistan from international troops to Afghan National Security Forces, increased cooperation through a multilateral approach will be vital moving forward in the fight against the illicit Afghan drug trade. Such an approach can be successful if Iran takes the lead with close cooperation from Russia and other regional countries, including the Caspian Sea states and the Central Asian states.