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Central Asia/Iran: Analysis From Washington -- Shifting The Balance

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's new efforts to close its border with Afghanistan appear likely to shift the balance of power not only within and among the countries of Central Asia but transform the ties these states have with the Russian Federation and the United States.

If Tehran is successful in blocking the flow of drugs and refugees from Afghanistan into Iran, even more of these two destabilizing forces are likely to flow into the post-Soviet Central Asian states. And such flows are likely to prompt governments there to crack down on their own societies, to tighten security among these states, and to turn to those outside governments ready and willing to help them do so.

Those moves in turn will transform the geopolitics of the region, especially since both Moscow and Washington have an interest in providing drug interdiction technology: the former in order to expand Russian influence in the region and the latter to prevent the flow of Afghan-produced drugs to Western Europe and the United States.

All three of these converging moves -- Iran's decision, Central Asian concerns about border security, and the geopolitical competition between Russia and the United States -- have been very much on public view so far this year.

Last week, the Iranian parliament allocated $116 million to increase security along its border with Afghanistan. The parliamentarians took this step both to reduce the number of refugees from the Taliban regime and to block the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Iran.

Tehran has accused Afghanistan of smuggling two-thirds of its annual drug production of 3,000 tons into Iran both to develop an Iranian market and to use that country as a transshipment point to Europe. And its politicians have suggested, in the words of one, that this drug trafficking has "driven the eastern Iranian provinces into a state of chaos."

Earlier Iranian efforts to block the border have failed because of a shortage of funds and the corruption the drug traffic inevitably has involved. But Tehran now has more funds available, having received a World Bank loan last week over the objections of the United States. Moreover, it has compelling domestic and foreign policy reasons for preventing the influx of drugs.

Domestically, the Iranian authorities must contend with up to three million drug users and the social and medical problems they present. And for foreign policy reasons, an Iran actively fighting drugs is likely to receive more international support, especially in Western Europe.

But if Iran is successful, the drugs will still continue to be produced and to be shipped out, most likely via the still weak states of Central Asia. In recent months and weeks, these countries have begun to step up border security, after a decade in which both regional leaders and major outside powers urged them to keep the borders as open as possible to promote cooperation.

As a result, most of the frontiers among these states remain extremely weak. And a new flood of drugs and refugees would almost certainly overwhelm them, especially because of the corruption of local officials that would almost certainly follow. That pattern almost certainly will set each of these countries against the others as they scramble to defend themselves.

The most immediate consequence, however, is that the governments there will use the fight against the drug trade and refugees -- what some are already calling "Narco-Islam" -- to justify ever more repressive policies, an approach that some governments beyond the region may find convincing but one that could leave these regimes even weaker than they are today.

During his visit to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin played to the fears of local leaders concerning Afghanistan to try to win their support for a special Russian role in the region. Arguing that "a threat to Uzbekistan is a threat to Russia," Putin promised to do whatever was necessary to block ideological and criminal influences coming from the south -- including unspecified "preventive actions."

Putin's remarks were obviously keyed to local concern about the influence of the Taliban But he also pointedly noted that "there have been attempts to redivide criminal spheres within the post-Soviet space using extremism and international terrorism," words that cover the drug trade and the criminal structures that it supports and spawns.

Meanwhile, the United States has also demonstrated its interest in combating any expanded flow of drugs northward through Central Asia. In the last two months, Washington has sent the CIA director, the FBI director, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the region both to reaffirm U.S. interest in Central Asia and especially its nervousness about the spillover of Afghan events there.

These three actions to combat the Afghan-originated drug trade by Iran, Central Asian governments, and Moscow and Washington simultaneously break down existing alliances and create new ones as all these countries try to figure out how to address the interrelated problems of drugs and crime originating in Afghanistan.

At the very least, the fight against the drug trade may -- like politics -- create some very strange bedfellows; more likely, this struggle will lead to a fundamental rearrangement of the geopolitics of Central Asia and the broader world.