Iran took a passive role during the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan, closing its airspace to American planes while also promising to help any downed flyers. But now that the strikes are over and reconstruction is beginning, Tehran is moving to reassert its influence in Afghanistan. In the second of a two-part series on Iranian-Afghan relations, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on Iran's efforts to acquire a greater voice inside Afghanistan by aiding its broadcast media.
Kabul, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One of the first things that strikes any visitor to Kabul is the almost total lack of local media.
There are currently no independent newspapers and magazines, though several foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations have projects to support new start-ups. And there are no independent radio or television operations. Instead, there is a single state-run news service that provides information to state-run radio and television and to several very small government-printed broadsheets.
The lack of newspapers, combined with a literacy rate estimated at 40 percent overall and 4 percent among women, means that most people turn for information to the national radio and television stations. But even that access is limited. Both the radio and television are confined to broadcasting within the Kabul area and for just a few hours a day for fear of blowing out their weak transmission equipment.
As for outside media, satellite dishes are only now beginning to appear on Kabul's streets and remain far beyond the reach of all but the richest individuals. A handful of electronics shops sell several hundred satellite receivers a week, while local workshops are busy producing satellite dishes made out of recycled tin from cooking-oil cans.
But most Afghans can get external information only by listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. These include Dari-language programming from Iran, the Tajik and Persian-language services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and broadcasts by Voice of America and the BBC. The U.S.-funded Radio Free Afghanistan is due to begin broadcasting in Dari and Pashto at the end of this month.
With most people in Kabul dependent on state-run radio and television, several foreign countries have said they will help those broadcast outlets expand their reach and programming. So far, only Iran has done so.
The chief of radio and television for the Afghan interim administration is Abdul Hafiz Mansour. He told RFE/RL recently in Kabul that he has received promises of help for his stations from U.S., Italian, and Japanese diplomats. However, Iran has already sent a delegation from its own state radio to visit the station and see about its needs. The delegation from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) accompanied Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi when he visited Kabul to attend the inauguration of the interim administration on 22 December.
The technical delegation's visit came as Iran also donated a 50-kilowatt radio transmitter, a 200-watt television transmitter, satellite equipment, and movies to Afghan radio and television. At the same time, Tehran has sent four technicians to work with Afghan broadcasting and has offered to repair or replace transmitters in cities outside the capital. Tehran also has offered to set up training courses in journalism, technical skills, and set design.
RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii, who visited Kabul earlier this month, says these steps place Iran well ahead of other countries in efforts to exert a local influence upon the Afghan public. And he says that, with time, that influence can be expected to grow.
"Iran has natural access to Afghanistan because of their long-standing historic and cultural links. Already Persian-language films are widely accessible. In fact, Iranian films are being shown regularly on Afghan TV, although the TV itself has only come back on the air about two months ago because the Taliban had banned TV."
Samii also says the strong Iranian interest in helping Afghanistan's state media suggests Tehran has abandoned the passive role it took during the recent U.S. military campaign in hopes of now returning as an active player.
That passive role saw Iran refuse to open its airspace to American warplanes but promise to help any U.S. pilots downed over its territory. At the same time, Iran vigorously condemned the Taliban but criticized U.S. air strikes as killing innocent civilians and as aiming to give Washington a dominant role in the region.
Prior to the U.S.-led campaign against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Tehran was a very active political player in Afghanistan, just as were other regional states like Pakistan and Russia. Regional specialist Samii says Iran was particularly interested in reaching out to communities in western Afghanistan -- on the Iranian border -- and in supporting the Afghan Shiia minority.
"Iran provided military assistance to the opposition Northern Alliance or, under its other name, the United Front. Much of that assistance was directed to Ismail Khan, who was recently restored as the governor in Herat province in the western part of Afghanistan. The assistance also went to the Afghan minority Shiia community, which are known as the Hazaras. The Hazaras were not only persecuted by the Taliban, but they also have long-standing grievances about being marginalized by the rest of Afghan Sunni society."
Samii says that so far, it is too early to say if Iran will continue to champion these causes as Afghanistan now begins a period of internationally supported reconstruction. But he says that by taking the lead in reviving Afghan state broadcasting, Tehran has already secured for itself a strong position from which to shape public opinion about the country's future leaders and its relations with foreign states. And Tehran has shown that -- even as the U.S. now has the lead in Afghanistan's political and economic arenas -- it is determined to quietly conduct its own campaign for Afghan hearts and minds.