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opinion | Stephen Kinzer

US, Iran share a common enemy: Heroin

An American security contractor walked through an opium poppy field near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan.file 2006/Getty images

According to a principle of traditional geopolitics, countries should seek to help their friends and hurt their enemies. This sounds logical. It can also help assure, however, that enemies remain enemies. Sometimes it can lead countries to ignore their own interests as they seek to harm others.

Decisions about whether a particular country qualifies as a friend or an enemy are almost always based on the politics of the regime in power. This is too narrow a standard. Bad governments should not disqualify nations from American help, especially when that help also serves American interests.

A fine opportunity to test this approach now presents itself. The United States is cautiously negotiating with Iran after 35 years of bitter hostility. Many in Washington still consider Iran to be a font of evil — and certainly not a potential partner. Yet Iran and the United States share a great challenge that neither can deal with alone: opiate addiction.


News about soaring rates of heroin abuse and death by overdose is hard to miss in the United States. Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont devoted his entire State of the State address this year to what he called Vermont’s “full-blown heroin crisis.” Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts has cited a “meteoric rise in addiction to heroin.” Attorney General Mike DeWine of Ohio, where 900 people died of overdoses last year, said heroin “is killing Ohioans at record levels.” From Philadelphia to Miami, from northern Kentucky to southern Louisiana, this scourge is taking a terrible toll.

Iran knows what this is like. It may have the worst opiate problem of any country in the world. Four million of its 70 million people are addicts. Overdose is the second leading cause of death, after traffic accidents. Half the prison population is made up of drug offenders. In many towns, and in rough Tehran neighborhoods like Davarze Ghar — “entrance to the cave” — addicts gather to use and, too often, die.

Experts say Iranians have turned to opiates partly out of despair at rising unemployment and economic trouble, and partly because alcohol, which they might otherwise use, is illegal. The main reason, though, is obvious. Iran shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, which produces most of the world’s opium poppies.


Iran has done what it can to deal with this burgeoning problem. Iranian troops patrol the border — hundreds have been killed by traffickers in recent years — and Iranian police seize more heroin than any other police force in the world. The only way the supply can be seriously reduced, however, is through a major development effort inside Afghanistan.

Iran has long and deep ties to Afghanistan. Much of western Afghanistan was formerly part of Iran, and people there still speak Dari, which is closely related to Farsi. Iran is a vital partner in any project aimed at changing Afghanistan. Yet because of political hostility, the United States has frozen Iran out of many multilateral efforts dealing with Afghanistan. That is because Iran is said to be seeking strategic advantage in Central Asia — which is true, but also true for the United States.

Most heroin used in the United States comes from Mexico, but the flood coming from Afghanistan depresses world prices and makes the drug easily affordable. Stemming that flood would be a contribution to global stability, a blow against trans-national organized crime, and a way for the United States and Iran to build confidence by working together on a project that is urgent but not political.

The American and Iranian opiate epidemics cannot be divorced from events in Afghanistan. That means they cannot be divorced from what the United States has done there. In 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, that country produced one metric ton of heroin. Last year it produced 5,500 tons. This came after the Department of Defense spent $2 billion on counter-narcotics efforts. No assessment of the Afghan war is complete without these stark statistics.


Because Iran understands Afghanistan far better than Americans do, making Iran a partner in a long-term effort to transform Afghan agriculture makes sense. One other country in the region would also have good reason to help: Russia, where millions are addicted and overdoses kill nearly 100 people every day, most of them young. This is not only an enormous public health and safety problem, but also a chance for the United States to work with two countries it often considers enemies.

If nations push the United States away, that is their choice. As the most potent world power, however, the United States should not push others away. The world will always be populated by regimes that are either disturbers of global peace or seem that way to us. It is in America’s interest to maintain ties with their people even if we detest their leaders.

Many Americans who travel widely observe a curious phenomenon: Despite all of our misdeeds, huge numbers of people around the world admire the United States. They envy our freedom, our stability, our prosperity, and the vigor of our society. Over the long term, showing these people that the United States cares for them — regardless of their political leaders — can bring great strategic benefits. This kind of cooperation plays to our strengths. Invasions and bombing campaigns show the world our worst side.


“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies,” the British statesman Lord Palmerston famously asserted. The United States would do well to embrace this truism. It is certain that at some point, Iran will be on better terms with the United States. So will Russia. Cooperating with them can hasten that day. If cooperation also addresses a terrifying social problem that afflicts us all, it becomes an imperative.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.