By: Hatef Mokhtar
Iran’s interests overlap with America’s, but cooperation remains a distant dream. After making a visit to Kabul, one can hardly deny the extent of Iranian influence in Afghanistan. As a major player in the region, Iran has a vital stake in how its Afghan neighbors are governed.
Iran’s influence since 2001—when it supported the NATO-backed effort to topple the Taliban and establish a new political order—has gone through different phases. It used mainly soft power to strengthen its foothold in Afghanistan through investment, trade and cultural linkages. Over the years, Iranian security and intelligence institutions have become increasingly active in prodding a Western withdrawal and shaping Afghan politics.
Iran has been accused of meddling in Afghanistan. But what influence does Tehran have, really, over Afghanistan’s affairs?
A recent open-source research report prepared by Human Terrain System researchers in the United States and obtained by Danger Room probes the history of Iranian activities in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, from humanitarian assistance to direct military aid. The report warns that Hazaras may look to Iran if the West fails to deliver on promises of aid.
As neighbors with similar dialects and much in common historically, the cultural ties between Iran and Afghanistan run deep. Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, situated just 80 miles from the Iranian border, was the capital of the Persian Empire in the 15th century. More recently, Iran has extended its electricity grid to the city, funded cooperative highway projects with India, and is even partnering with NATO members on construction of an Iran-Afghanistan railway.
These modern ties are validated by Iran’s support for ethnic Shia minorities such as Hazaras and Tajiks. Since 2001, Tehran has contributed more than half a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance to displaced Afghan minorities.
In fact, Iran is home to approximately two million Afghan refugees, a major problem magnified by UN-imposed sanctions and inflationary stresses. In spite of internal domestic pressure to deport Afghan illegal immigrants, Tehran has agreed to slow the process until their Afghan neighbors see some semblance of political stabilization.
Yet the socioeconomic problems of Afghanistan confronts revolve not so much around the flow of refugees as they do around the flow of illicit drugs. As opium production has risen in Afghanistan, so too has usage in Iran.
The Iranian government is faced with a population of nearly four million opium addicts – a number that continues to rise. A recent world drug report estimated that Iran accounts for nearly 40 percent of global opium usage. Aside from fueling this addiction problem, profits from the opium trade provides funds for Taliban insurgents.
Iran has waged what former CIA officer Bob Baer calls a war by proxy, supplying and training scattered units of Taliban to remain hostile against the nation and as well as the American presence.
Iran has pursued a strategy of supporting Afghan minorities, both Shia and Sunni. Although the majority of Afghans is Pashtun Sunnis, Iran commands significant influence over the Shia population, which accounts for 19 percent of the country’s population.
Furthermore, the Iranians have established a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks – together, the three ethnic groups make up 30 percent of the population. This network played a central role in the overthrow of the Taliban following 9/11.
Although no foreign or domestic player commands the loyalty of a majority in the country, Iran is a long-term player in Afghanistan with influence at least equal to, and arguably greater than, that of Pakistan or the United States.
Over the past 30 years, Iran has craftily managed its relationship with its eastern neighbor. It has a policy of, first, minimizing the cost of conflict and, second, maximizing the chances for success – known as the minimum-maximum strategy. This strategy is exemplified by its arming and training of guerrilla forces, even as it avoids conventional military engagement.
And not all of Iran’s aggressive engagement is purely by proxy. Last year in Kabul, Ambassador Fada Hossein Maleki walked from the Iranian Embassy to the Indian Embassy to demand a halt in the construction of the Salma Dam, a $150 million Indian-funded construction project 112 miles from Herat. In the Iranian view, the dam would reduce the flow of river water into its territory. In October, an Afghan police commander tasked with protecting the dam testified before the country’s Parliament on Iranian intentions to sabotage the project if it is not halted.
Besides, the facilitating role Tehran may have played in providing arms from sources as varied as North Korea and Algeria is another indication.
Afghan officials have for years received reports of Iran smuggling arms to the Taliban. The WikiLeaks documents, however, appear to give new evidence of direct contacts between Iranian officials and the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
The apparent links are striking because Iran has historically been a foe of the Taliban, who generally view the followers of Shiite Islam—Iran’s predominant faith—as heretics.
In recent years, the Taliban toned down their sectarian rhetoric and reached out to Iran, pledging friendly relations with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors should they return to power.
An April 2007 memo notes that the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to “keep the issue of the Iranian-made weapons recently found in Kandahar under the radar screen in the lead up to the June visit of the Iranian President to Afghanistan.”
Several reports provide new details of the extent of Iran’s reach, including apparent payments to kill some Afghan officials and attempts to buy others off.
A report from 2005 describes Iran offering compensation of between $1,700 and $3,400 to a group of former Afghan government officials and Taliban members residing in Iran to kill Afghan soldiers and government officials.
Another report two years later shows growing US concern about Iran meddling, including reports from Afghan officials that Iran paid a total of $4 million to as many as 90 members of the Afghan parliament.
The US Embassy in Kabul said, however, it found members of parliament were more motivated to support Iran because of local issues, such as the Afghan government’s “poor performance on the issue of Afghans deported from Iran.”
Taliban fighters are using Iranian-made rocket-propelled grenades to successfully shoot down helicopters belonging to coalition forces. In a document dated March 2009, US military intelligence said a group of more than 100 Afghan and foreign Taliban had traveled from Iran to Afghanistan to launch suicide attacks.
A statement sourced to “human intelligence” in June 2006 said Iranian officials were training members of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin in Birjand, Iran. Bombs and vehicles for suicide bombers were sent into Afghanistan from there. One report dated February 2007 said Helmand residents believed Iran had supplied the Taliban with a poison to be slipped into the tea or food of government officials. At least one document referred to the Afghan government’s reluctance to publicize Iran’s alleged involvement with its enemies, stressing that Mr Karzai wanted “to avoid additional friction with Afghanistan’s neighbors.”
Iran is waging a covert campaign against US-led forces in the country by providing money, arms, training and safe haven to Taliban insurgents, according to leaked US military intelligence. Reports from Afghan spies and paid informants, described in papers published on the whistleblower website Wikileaks, accuse the Iranian government of directly supporting the insurgents.
“Iran has taken a series of steps to expand and deepen its influence in Afghanistan,” reads a summary of a secret cable sourced to the US embassy in Kabul and written by a deputy general. The cable relayed claims from within the Afghan foreign ministry that Iran was bribing Afghan MPs with millions of US dollars and working to oust reformist ministers.
Tehran, which initially supported the US drive to unseat Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, denies the allegation that it is working against President Hamid Karzai’s western-backed government—an allegation that has been made evident when Karzai acknowledged that his chief of staff had received “bags of money” from Iran.
Officials in NAI, which supports free media in Afghanistan, are saying that the two neighboring countries, Pakistan and Iran, are struggling to increase their presence and influence in Afghanistan media as 2014 is getting closer, since they are looking to use media in a bid to spark tribal and religious issues.
“The Iranians are looking to create their influence inside the Afghanistan media through journalism training programs,” said Sediqullah Tawhidi, head of the media watch in NAI agency. Mr. Tawhidi urged the Afghan foreign ministry and Afghan information and culture ministry to take immediate actions against the issue.
Afghan intelligence officials earlier also said that a number of the media agencies are being supported by Iran in capital Kabul but the comments by Afghanistan National Directorate of Security (NDS) spokesman, widely broadcasted by local and foreign media agencies, was harshly criticized.
The issue of Iran’s support towards the local media in Afghanistan was widely criticized in political sessions and by media analysts who say the pro-Iranian media agencies are broadcasting news and views against the NATO troops and in a number of cases, the local media have followed Iranian media to broadcast anti-US articles and analysis.
In the meantime, there are reports that the Iranian clerics who are attending religious sessions in Herat province are instigating the local clerics and residents against the foreign troops. They are also reportedly providing negative speech against the foreign non-governmental organizations and accusing them of preaching other religions in this province. In other cases, the clerics have reportedly said that the foreign troops have “occupied” Afghanistan; such comments are normally found in the Iranian media and predominantly in the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
So the major concern remains the growing influence of the Iranians in every matter of national importance. In the eyes of Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst and former diplomat, Tehran’s influence is becoming pronounced. “Afghanistan is under the siege of Iranian influence.”
“We have now six pro-Iranian TV channels, 21 radio stations, and a large number of publications that appear in Kabul,” he said, adding, “The cultural war is more important than war led by guns.”
Iran’s strategy is aimed at both bolstering its support among Afghanistan’s minority Shi’ites and countering US and Western influence in Afghanistan. Iran’s long-term agenda is “to have some people who support the Iranian regime and culture in the society, and can somehow disrupt political stability by inciting ethnical/communal tensions after the withdrawal of foreign forces from the Afghan heartlands in 2014.”
Davood Moradian, former chief adviser to President Hamid Karzai’s foreign minister, says there are three facets to Iran’s objectives in Afghanistan. There is the “Iran which has legitimate interests, Iran which has an ideological preference, and Iran which has regional ambition. And two of the three are causing problems in Afghanistan.”
There are also concerns that Iran’s ideological ambitions will create friction between Afghanistan’s majority Sunni and minority Shia, already sparkling a tussle for influence from Iran’s ideological rival, Saudi Arabia.
In western Kabul, one physical example of Iran’s influence is the Khatam al-Nabeyeen Islamic University. The complex, which also includes a madrasah and student housing, is funded with the help of Iran and teaches Iran’s version of Islam.
On the economic front, Iran has destabilized Afghan markets by purchasing large amounts of foreign currency, a counter-measure against international sanctions on its nuclear program, while on other side, Afghanistan consumer base too has been targeted by the regular dumping of inferior-quality goods supplied by the bordering countries specifically Iran.
By these available indications, Iran does not appear to be in favor of a democratic, affluent Afghanistan. It portrays itself as the future leader of the Islamic world but in reality practicing policies that are against the interests of the Islamic countries and also promoting its own ideology that is anti-Islamic at best.
About the author:
Hatef Mokhtar (born 11 May 1962) is an Afghan author currently living in Norway and is a Norwegian citizen. He is the founder and chief editor of The Oslo Times and a human-rights activist. He writes for several newspapers and magazines such as KL-Today, Daily Sun, Malaysia Today, Haama Daily, groruddalen.no, Malaysia Today, and Burma Digest. He works towards the freedom of press and speech, and for the promotion of peace. He is a public speaker and a political analyst. Although a political analyst on Afghanistan, he also specializes in global human rights issues and the freedom of expression in particular. Mokhtar belongs to the Durrani clan of the Pashtun. He is the founder and chairman of Armed for the Quill (AFTQ) and the organization Global Peace. Read more about him at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatef_Mokhtar