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Afghanistan: Kabul Mulls Relations With Iran

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Kabul in September (epa) March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan government and ordinary Afghans are quick to say that most of the destabilizing factors in their country have a foreign origin -- and Pakistan is most likely to be blamed.

But recently, more attention is being paid to the possibility that Afghanistan's neighbor to the west -- Iran -- may also be pursuing its own agenda in Afghanistan to the detriment of Kabul.

Iran and Pakistan became actively involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan during the mujahedin's resistance against Soviet forces and the subsequent communist regimes from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Pakistani Involvement

Both countries also became host to millions of Afghan refugees. During the jihad period -- as the anticommunist resistance is referred to by Afghans -- Pakistan hosted and manipulated the mostly Sunni Muslim and Pashtun mujahedin groups, while Iran managed the mostly Shi'ite Muslim groups.

Not causing trouble does not mean that Iran lacks the ability to do so, if such a policy would suit Tehran's dealings with the West.

With the collapse of the communist government of President Najibullah in 1992, the Pakistani-backed groups initially took control of most levers of power.

Gradually, however, Iran, and -- even less obviously, India and the Russian Federation -- cultivated their own relations with new clients to oppose the domination of Pakistan over the future of Afghanistan.

With the advent of the Taliban phenomenon in 1994, Tehran began not only to actively support the loose grouping of former mujahedin parties and communist strongmen -- the United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (popularly known as the Northern Alliance) -- but also gave refuge to Pakistan's one-time favorite Afghan client, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as a potential card to be played.

Tehran Opposed Taliban

Whereas during the jihad period Pakistan and Iran chose their clients based somewhat on ideological, cultural, and religious considerations, in the post-Taliban arrangements Tehran's adamant opposition to the new arrangements in Afghanistan meant that anyone standing against the Taliban was a potential asset.

Then, as now, Tehran believed that the Taliban phenomenon was a Western -- mainly U.S. -- undertaking being used not only to oppose Iran but also to defame Islam.

After the ouster of the Taliban regime by the U.S.-led coalition in late 2001, Iran played a constructive role by convincing its clients to cooperate with the new arrangements and to take an active part in reconstruction. They focused especially on areas close to its border with Afghanistan -- most notably Herat Province.

From the beginning Kabul tried to balance its ties with Iran despite the presence of U.S. and later NATO forces on its soil, something that Tehran has continuously opposed.

As the pendulum of relations between Kabul and Islamabad began to swing, mostly towards antagonistic levels, the Afghan government began to view India -- but also Iran -- as potential balancing factors in Kabul's threat-perception scenarios.

Worried By Iranian Influence

Despite the official stance of the Afghan government, popular views of Iran's attempts to influence Afghanistan -- both strategically and culturally -- have begun to surface recently.

Among many Afghans, mainly Pashto speakers, there is a feeling that Iranian culture and the Persian dialect spoken in Tehran is seeping into their country and is having an irreversible effect on the Afghan cultural identity.

Beyond the linguistic influences, Afghans quietly though in ever-greater numbers talk of a long-term Iranian program to bring their country into the sphere of Iranian influence, especially once the foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

Afghan officials in western provinces that border Iran have discussed incursions by Iranians, violations by Iranian aircraft of Afghan airspace, and support of terrorists in camps operated by Iranians. But there have been no formal or public protests against Iran, even though the Afghan government has made many public complaints of reported interference by Pakistan.

Training Camp In Iran?

Abdul Samad Stanakzai, a former governor of the western Farah Province, expressed concern in January over alleged Iranian interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

In an interview with Herat-based Radio Sahar on January 30, Stanakzai claimed that Iran is training "a large number of political opponents of the [Afghan] government" in a refugee camp in Iran called Shamsabad.

"Iran's interference is aimed at influencing our national identity and destroying it in the long term," Stanakzai added. Broadcasting the story, Radio Sahar commented that whereas "key [Afghan] government officials previously complained about interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs by neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, they have avoided blaming Iran."

In mid-February, General Daud Ahadi, the commander of Border Brigade No. 5 in Nimroz Province, pointed to at least three separate violations of Afghan airspace by Iranian helicopters.

State-run Radio Afghanistan reported two such violations on February 18, adding in a commentary that "the Iranian side on occasion has caused border problems between Iran and Afghanistan that has resulted in violence."

Border Clashes Reported

Nimroz Governor Gholam Dastagir Azad told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on March 9 that "Afghan and Iranian border police clashed" along the border between the two countries and one border policeman from both sides was killed and one Afghan policeman was injured.

According to Azad the clash was caused by a "misunderstanding."

In another development, since February Afghan officials have mentioned that Iran is erecting a wall along the border with the Kang district in Nimroz Province, ostensibly to prevent drug smugglers from entering Iran.

Nur Mohammad Haidar, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, told Kabul-based Tolo Television on February 14 that if the "Iranian officials want to prevent drug smugglers and illegal immigrants from entering" their country, they can find more effective preventive measures "in coordination and cooperation with Afghan security officials...than erecting a wall."

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Satar Ahmad Bahin told Tolo that since the "wall is erected inside Iranian territory, it is not Afghanistan's business." He added: "We have nothing to do with it."

Kabul's total rejection of Pakistan's plans to erect barb-wired fences in selected areas of its border with Afghanistan -- and also inside Pakistani territory -- and its reported acceptance of barriers by Iran, could present diplomatic and legal obstacles to Afghanistan's policy of opposing the Pakistani plan.

Siding With Iran

Kabul's choice of putting its lot with Tehran and New Delhi while seeing only evil intent in Islamabad is -- at best -- a short-sighted policy which not only ignores geographical realties on the ground but also discounts the long-term strategic goals of Iran and, to a much-lesser degree, that of India vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

Another factor which makes Iran a liability to Afghanistan's medium-term stability is Tehran's opposition to the presence of NATO and other foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In a recent commentary titled "People of Afghanistan: Hostages of Occupiers and Terrorists," the hard-line Tehran daily "Jomhuri-ye Islami" restated Iran's claim that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are creations of the United States and that Washington's strategy is based on a "long stay in Afghanistan. But in order to justify this usurpatory presence," it needs an "explanation and pretext."

The commentary concluded that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda "have acted as a fifth column" for the United States not only to enter Afghanistan, but also to legitimize its presence there.

Unlike its reported involvement in Iraq, Tehran has not created much noticeable trouble to foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan. Instead it has concentrated most of its efforts on cultivating political allies among diverse Afghan political groupings and injecting Iranian culture into Afghanistan.

However, not causing trouble does not mean that Iran lacks the ability to do so, if such a policy would suit Tehran's dealings with the West. Perhaps the "misunderstandings" in Nimroz are just that -- or they could be a message to NATO states of Iran's ability to interfere in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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