(www.latwp.com) - It is increasingly clear that Washington will need the cooperation of Iran, a nation it greatly distrusts, to abate the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq. Mutual hostility notwithstanding, the two countries have strong common interests in repairing Iraq's health-care system.
More than a third of Iraq's physicians have left the country since 2003. Those remaining lack the resources to provide even minimal patient care. Critical infrastructure such as hospitals and the support systems needed to make them functional remain badly degraded, reports Trend.
The demoralizing effect this has on the population cannot be underestimated. Lack of adequate medical care contributes to despair and cynicism, which fosters support for violence. Iranian help in this area would be of critical value.
Although any cooperation between the United States and Iran on strategic issues seems unlikely, it is already a reality at the University of Connecticut. Our laboratory at UConn's Department of Molecular and Cell Biology is conducting a U.S. government-supported program that uses state-of-the-art research methodology to analyze data and samples collected by the Iranian government from victims of chemical attacks.
This program will help prevent and treat disease in mustard-gas victims. It was developed with the backing of members of the U.S. Defense Department and serves as a model for interaction between biomedical professionals in Iraq and Iran.
We have seen the great strength of Iran's medical establishment -- the skill, resilience and adaptability of its professionals. They are adept at providing high-quality medical services under harsh conditions with minimal material support.
With their knowledge, painfully gained, Iranian medical teams could provide assistance in patient care and continuing medical education in Iraq, with support from the United States.
The obvious spoiler is the assumption by U.S. officials that Iran would use this as a vehicle for terrorism. Iran's help also would be seen by many Iraqis as another mechanism for the government in Tehran to extend control over Iraq.
If a program of this kind were to be established, the United States would need to make it clear that cooperation with Iran on the health front would cease unless certain guidelines were followed. A primary condition would be quarantine of the program from the military objectives of Iraqi insurgent or militia groups. A second condition would be measurable progress in bringing back Iraqi expatriate physicians.
Iran has enormous incentive for abiding by such guidelines. Tehran recognizes that its stable hegemony over Iraq would be made easier if Iraqis had security and hope. Reconstitution of the nation's health-care system would contribute to this and build a solid base of goodwill among Iraqis.
The United States will, of course, oppose Iranian hegemony of any sort and will remain implacable rivals for influence in Southwest Asia. However, cooperation between the two nations in rebuilding the Iraqi health sector allows this rivalry to be harnessed toward a positive purpose.
Strong historical precedent exists for such constructive rivalry. During the height of the Cold War, America, China and the Soviet Union curried favor with developing countries through health and public works projects -- which left a legacy in roads and ports, among other things. There is no reason a similar process cannot be made to work for the benefit of Iraqis. The capacity of Americans and Iranians to channel their rivalry into similar constructive avenues and to diminish the horror unfolding in Iraq will be a measure of our maturity as civilized nations.
Haines is a research immunologist at the University of Connecticut and a former U.S. Army chemical warfare officer. Baban is chairman of the Department of Medicine at Suleymania University in Iraq and a member of the Kurdistan National Assembly.