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Iran: Tehran Returns To Kabul After Long Absence Under Taliban (Part 1)

By Charles Recknagel/William Samii

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 seeking to reassert its influence in Afghanistan. In the first of a two-part series on Iranian-Afghan relations, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel and regional specialist William Samii look at the political ties between the two countries.

Prague, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During the Taliban period, Tehran was a virtual non-entity in Kabul.

The Iranians left the Afghan capital because they -- like every other country in the world but three -- refused to recognize the militia as Afghanistan's government. But after the Iranians left, the Taliban singled out their embassy for special treatment. The locked main gate of the spacious, tree-dotted compound was painted black in a public gesture of contempt.

That blackened gate helped reinforce the point that the Taliban, as a fundamentalist Sunni group, considered Shiite Iran to be an affront to Islam and a mortal enemy. In return, Iran provided military support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (United Front), particularly to Afghanistan's mostly Shiite Hazara minority and to Ismail Khan, whom the Taliban had ousted from his post as governor of Herat province on the Iranian border.

Today, the gate of the Iranian Embassy has been repainted the welcoming color green and Tehran's diplomats are back. They were among the first to return to Kabul after the collapse of the Taliban in early November under the pressure of U.S. air strikes. Among the other early arrivals were the Russians, who also supported the Northern Alliance.

But if the Iranian Embassy is open again in Kabul, it remains unclear how much influence on Afghan affairs Iran will now exert. Much of the reason is the tension between Tehran and Washington, each of which regards the other as a regional threat.

Iran has signaled that it wants to turn its support of the Northern Alliance into an active role in Kabul after taking a passive posture during the recent U.S.-led military campaign. That campaign has not only seen the destruction of the Taliban but also the arrival of a Western-leaning administration led by Hamid Karzai. It also has seen the start of what is likely to be a massive economic effort to reconstruct Afghanistan funded by Western donors and Western-leaning countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Iran is responding to these U.S. successes by seeking to gain a voice in Afghan affairs through assistance to its state-run media. That capitalizes on Iran's longstanding cultural and linguistic ties to Afghanistan -- an arena where Western powers have greater difficulty competing. Afghan state broadcasting has welcomed Iran's technical assistance and Iranian films are now regularly being shown on state television. All of this could help build goodwill at the grassroots level despite the religious differences between Shiite Iran and majority Sunni Afghanistan.

But even as Iran seeks to build its influence in Kabul, it is encountering tough resistance from Washington. U.S. military officials around Herat recently accused Tehran of trying to bribe local tribal leaders in western areas to destabilize Afghanistan. And in early January, U.S. President George W. Bush added a personal warning to Iran against destabilizing the new Afghan government or harboring fleeing Al-Qaeda members. Iran has denied doing either.

So far, Afghanistan's interim administration has sought to diffuse the tension by reassuring all sides it sees no Iranian interference. Afghan state television recently quoted interim Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim as saying on a one-day visit to Iran that he "dismissed recent statements by the president of the United States regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran's interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan."

Ismail Khan, the now-restored governor of Herat province and perhaps Tehran's closest Afghan ally, also has rejected the U.S. charges. Speaking in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Khan called Iranian-Afghan relations excellent.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran since long ago has had a consulate office in Herat, and it is open at present. Our relations are due to a long border of more than 600 kilometers with the Islamic Republic and due to its massive and honest support to us during the jihad and fight against the Taliban."

Still, even while the Afghan officials appear determined to maintain good regional relations, the head of the interim administration has chosen neither Tehran nor Moscow as the destination for his first official state visit abroad.

Instead, Karzai announced recently that his first trip would be to Saudi Arabia, one of the three states which once supported the Taliban. The visit would likely be to underscore his administration's hopes for a substantial Saudi contribution to the reconstruction fund that is to be launched at the international donors conference in Tokyo on 21-22 January. Karzai is also expected to visit Washington later in January for talks with Bush and other top U.S. officials.

The Afghan administration's desire to sidestep the distrust between Washington and Tehran -- while clearly looking West for the country's economic future -- may mean that Iranian-Afghan relations still must be defined in the months ahead. But Iran has shown that it is just as determined not to be left out of Afghanistan as are the region's other key powers, Russia and Pakistan -- even if Tehran stayed out of Afghanistan's most recent crisis, the war on terror.