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Politics & Economics: Common Ground in Afghanistan? --- U.S. and Iran Show Ability to Cooperate for Regional Goals

The Wall Street Journal

By Jay Solomon


As pressure mounts on the White House to engage Tehran over Iraq, Afghanistan offers an example of how U.S. and Iranian interests can constructively align in the Islamic world.

Senior American and Afghan officials say that in contrast with the situation in Iraq, where Iran is allegedly funding and arming Shiite militias, Tehran today is playing an important role in seeking to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The Iranian government has pledged $560 million in development aid to President Hamid Karzai's government since 2002, these officials say, roughly half of which has been disbursed. It is developing road and power projects, largely in the western part of the country near the two countries' shared border. And Iranian companies have provided goods and services -- including cement and banking -- to Afghanistan's war-ravaged population.

Iran also has been among the most active nations seeking to combat Afghanistan's largest ill, opium production, say American and Afghan officials. Tehran seized more Afghan opium than any other country last year, with hundreds of its security forces killed while policing its 600-mile border with Afghanistan in recent years, according to the United Nations.

Critics say Iran has largely acted out of self-interest in Afghanistan. They say Tehran's support for Mr. Karzai's government is in part aimed at ridding the country of Tehran's enemy, the Taliban Sunni militia, while seeking to usher in stable conditions that could hasten a U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia. Its counternarcotics operations, meanwhile, are driven by a desire to cut off supply to its country's estimated two million heroin addicts. Iran is also using Afghanistan as a base to expand its influence and economic interests across the region.

And Iran's intelligence services maintain a "destructive capability" inside Afghanistan that could target American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces should tensions between Washington and Tehran escalate, Afghan and U.S. officials say.

"Iran's role has been constructive" in helping to rebuild Afghanistan and fight narcotics, said Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington. He added that cordial Afghan-Iranian relations are crucial, due to Tehran's economic and political influence inside his country.

Former Secretary of State James Baker III, in unveiling the Iraq Study Group's recommendations on how to improve the situation in Iraq last week, pointed to Afghanistan as a possible model for U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq.

"All we're suggesting is doing with [Iraq] what we did in Afghanistan, when we talked to [the Iranians] and they helped us stabilize the situation," said Mr. Baker, co-chairman of the panel.

Outside Afghanistan, the U.S. and Iran have hostile relations, with the two sides at odds over Tehran's efforts to develop a nuclear program and its backing of extremist forces across the Middle East. But that hasn't stopped the two countries from accepting each other's roles in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, Mr. Baker and others say, Iran's Shiite theocracy government could only help -- indeed, may be essential -- to stem the flow of arms and funds to Shiite militias across its border, while providing critical development aid.

Even if the White House were to reach out to Iran -- President Bush so far has made working with Tehran conditional upon its stopping its nuclear program -- it has offered little indication that it would be willing, or even able, to play the same type of stabilizing role in Iraq that it has in Afghanistan. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has rejected repeated White House calls for meetings to coordinate a response to Iraq's turmoil. Still, current and former U.S. diplomats say, Iran may be cooperative in Iraq if Washington offers it a more direct role. In Afghanistan, Iran emerged as an unlikely supporter of U.S. policy, as the Bush administration moved to overthrow the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks, current and former U.S. diplomats say.

Iran's leadership had developed an intense hatred for the Taliban during its five-year rule of Afghanistan. The radical Sunni regime nearly sparked a war with Iran in 1998, after its forces killed nine Iranian diplomats in the central Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, on charges they were spies. The Taliban also persecuted Afghanistan's minority Shiite peoples, known as the Hazara, who share a common language and religion with Iran.

In January 2002, Mr. Bush branded Iran a member of his "Axis of Evil," angering Iran's then-moderate government of President Mohammad Khatami, which had believed its relations with Washington were improving in light of the Afghanistan war. The White House also charged Iran with sheltering and providing safe passage to al Qaeda and Taliban militants who had fled the fighting in Afghanistan. One of them, U.S. intelligence officials say, was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who went on to head al Qaeda's operations in Iraq before his death in June. (Iran has denied that it supports al Qaeda.)

Regardless of the breakdown in U.S.-Iran ties, Tehran has continued to push ahead with development projects in Afghanistan, albeit amid little interaction with the American presence there. Its investments have helped make the country's western and central regions among the most stable there, in contrast with Afghanistan's south and east, where Taliban insurgents have heightened attacks on NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces in recent months, say Afghan officials and businessmen. Perhaps no place is the impact of Iran's assistance as apparent as the western Afghan city of Herat.

Tehran is seeking to help refashion the city as a trading hub linking Asia and the Central Asian states to the Persian Gulf. Iran's cultural and financial influence has traditionally been strong in Herat, though it had eroded under the Taliban.

Central to this effort has been the development of a roads project, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, that connects Herat to Iran's east and then on to the Persian Gulf port of Chabahar. Landlocked Afghanistan has relied on the Pakistani port of Karachi both to ship out products and import many raw materials. But many Afghan businessmen have complained in recent years that shipping through the overloaded Karachi port is expensive and time-consuming.

Tehran's development of Chabahar and its financing of roads linking it to Afghanistan have stimulated competition between Pakistan and Iran for a leading role in Afghanistan's transit business, say Afghan and development officials.

Herat also has some of the best power supply in Afghanistan, thanks to Iran. Much of the rest of Afghanistan is waiting for the government to connect power lines to energy supplies in Tajikistan, a process that is taking years as workers first move to clear the Hindu Kush mountain range. Tehran, however, has directly tied Herat to Iran's power grid.

"Iran has chosen projects that are a high priority and necessary" for Afghanistan, says Alastair McKechnie, the World Bank's country director for Afghanistan. "In that sense, they've played a very positive role."

A number of Afghan and American officials say Iran's increasing presence in Afghanistan may not be all positive. Iranian intelligence agencies are believed to be assuming a larger presence inside the country, mixing in with the Hazara and the more than one million Afghan refugees who have returned from Iran since the Taliban's fall. Tehran continues to maintain strategic ties with many of the former Northern Alliance warlords with whom they were aligned against the Taliban, say U.S. and Afghan officials. In addition, while Sunni-controlled states, such as Saudi Arabia, are reluctantly accepting Iran's influence in western Afghanistan, they are wary of it expanding beyond there through the Middle East. Should tensions between Iran and the U.S. escalate over Tehran's nuclear program, many in Afghanistan say, Tehran could seek to use its own intelligence agents and their Afghan allies to target American and NATO forces inside Afghanistan.

"Iran is very active . . . and could play in several ways that is detrimental to Afghanistan," says retired Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan up until last year. Tehran still sees Afghanistan "as part of the broader conflict with the U.S."


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