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US, Iran Attend Afghan Conference in Moscow

Asia's six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, held a meeting in Moscow Friday to discuss ways of combating terrorism, drug-trafficking, and organized crime in Afghanistan. Among those invited to the meeting were diplomats from the United States and Iran.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon, and Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhonzadeh spoke within minutes of one another at the SCO's Special Conference on Afghanistan.

The Iranian diplomat told delegates that illicit drugs represent a serious peril to the security and stability of not only Afghanistan, but the entire region, adding that no country can fight the phenomenon alone. Akhonzadeh said Iran seizes about three tons of opium on its border every day, noting that drug profits are used to fund terrorist networks in Afghanistan.

VOA asked the diplomat if his country has an interest in the success of the U.S. and NATO military operation in Afghanistan. He responded by noting drug production increased eight-fold since the NATO entered Afghanistan in 2001.

"So there's a big question mark," he said. "Who is responsible for such a heavy increase of production and export of the narcotics, because all of the areas where this cultivation is underway are controlled by NATO forces in one way or other?"

Akhonzadeh said this reality cannot be ignored and called for new ideas, strategies and methods to tackle the problems of Afghanistan.

In his presentation, Patrick Moon said 18 Afghan provinces are now completely free of opium production. He noted that poppy cultivation decreased 19 percent nationwide last year and is on track to drop even further in 2009. Moon said 98 percent of the poppies in Afghanistan are grown in the unstable south.

"We need to ensure improved security conditions in the south in order to carry out an effective counter-narcotics strategy in Helmand and Kandahar provinces," he said. "The nexus between the insurgency and the drug trade is most prominent in the south."

Moon acknowledged that the military approach alone cannot solve the problems of Afghanistan, and called on the international community to help the country institute good governance, and such measures as rural electrification and replacement of opium production with profitable legal crops. In addition, he said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should help secure the borders of Afghanistan.

Iranian and U.S. diplomats were aware of one another's presence at the Moscow conference, but said it is not unusual for them to attend the same international forums. A senior U.S. administration official said the American side did not request a meeting with Iran and was not asked for one either. He noted, however, that the U.S. considers Iran to be an important player related to Afghanistan, and sees the issue as a very productive area for engagement in the future

Anticipating President Barack Obama's Strategic Review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mohammad Mehdi Akhonzadeh said Iran expects measurable change, not rhetoric from the United States.

"We don't want to come here two years later, three years later, or four year later to again talk about the extremism, terrorism, drugs, and so on and so forth," he said.

Patrick Moon echoed these threats, as did all of the delegates at the SCO Afghan Conference.

Speaking on behalf of the host country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said an effective struggle against such problems requires significant improvement in the combat readiness and coordination of the Afghan military, police and other law enforcement agencies, which the U.S. also considers important. He noted the use of force against terrorists and drug traffickers should be accompanied by a broad range of social and economic revitalization measures. Lavrov also reiterated Moscow's offer to allow transit of non-combat goods through its territory and said Russia is ready to examine other kinds of constructive cooperation.

Iran announced earlier that it will participate in another Afghan Conference in The Hague on March 31, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend.