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Iran/U.S.: Tensions High As Nations Compete For Influence In Afghanistan

Tensions are high between Washington and Tehran over Afghanistan, as U.S. officials again charge Tehran with trying to destabilize the interim administration. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with an analyst about the conflict between Iranian and U.S. interests in Afghanistan, and the forms the competition is taking.

Prague, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Washington is casting a worried eye on Iran's activities in western Afghanistan, where U.S. officials say Tehran is trying to expand its influence at the expense of the interim administration.

U.S. President George W. Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has repeatedly charged in recent weeks that elements within Iran are helping to arm and finance groups within Afghanistan in a bid to establish pockets of influence and discourage cooperation with the government in Kabul.

Speaking to the BBC in mid-February, and repeating many of the same remarks later to the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Khalilzad said hard-line elements around Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps are funneling weapons, funds, and Iranian-trained Afghan Shiite combatants into western Iran and elsewhere. He said the purpose is to create what he termed centers of Iranian influence in Herat -- some 80 kilometers from the Iranian border -- and in surrounding provinces.

Khalilzad said that, specifically, Iran has dispatched a group of Afghan Shiites trained in Lebanon and called Sipah-e-Mohammad, or Mohammad's Soldiers, to Afghanistan, along with members of the Al Qods division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

At the same time, the U.S. envoy -- who would not specify the source of his information -- said some elements of the Revolutionary Guard Corps had helped members of Al-Qaeda escape from Afghanistan to Iran. He said some members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps had long-standing links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and were helping the fleeing fighters to travel on from Iran to other destinations abroad. Other U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, first charged Iran with aiding fleeing Al-Qaeda members in January.

The Iranian reaction to the U.S. charges has been sharp but sometimes contradictory. In February, Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi said no members of Al-Qaeda had entered Iran and none would dare to do so. And Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi challenged the United States to provide any evidence that fugitive fighters were passing into the country.

But more recently, Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted anonymous officials as saying Tehran had arrested 150 people suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban at its border with Pakistan. Within days after that report, however, Kharrazi said the 150 arrested foreigners were not members of Al-Qaeda. The Foreign Ministry also termed information that Washington had provided in response to Tehran's challenge as "old, wrong, and imprecise."

Analysts say that U.S.-Iranian tensions over Afghanistan are high for several reasons.

One is the states' continuing rivalry on the world stage as Washington accuses Tehran of supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East and seeking nuclear weapons. That rivalry has now been exacerbated on the regional level by the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as support troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as part of Washington's war on terror. Iran sees the deployments as a threatening buildup of American military power in what Tehran has historically considered its own backyard.

William Samii, a regional specialist at RFE/RL, says still another important reason for the heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions is Washington's conviction that much of Tehran's Afghan policy is in the hands of hard-line elements eager for confrontation with Washington. Samii says U.S. envoy Khalilzad recently expressed that view when he said Iran is pursuing what he termed parallel "constructive" and "negative" policies in Afghanistan.

"Late last year and again in January, Khalilzad and State Department officials praised Iran's reformist-dominated Foreign Ministry for pursuing what they called a constructive role in helping move the rival parties in Afghanistan to join the UN-brokered interim administration during the Bonn negotiations that were held in early December," Samii says.

"But at an early January press conference in Kabul that I attended, Khalilzad said that some of Iran's activities in Afghanistan were worrisome," Samii adds. "Khalilzad and other American officials later said that Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security and its Revolutionary Guard Corp are working to undermine the interim administration by strengthening Herat Governor Ismail Khan by providing him with funds, arms, and additional fighters."

The analyst says that to counter this perceived buildup, U.S. forces are competing directly on the ground with Iran for influence over some factional or regional militias.

"In northern Afghanistan, Iranian agents reportedly are arming [ethnic Uzbek General Abdulrashid] Dostum's faction, whereas in the central highlands around Bamiyan, U.S. special forces are active and the [Afghan Shiite faction] Hezbe Wahdat has openly sided with the U.S. What this indicates to me is that the nature of alliances in Afghanistan is still very fluid," Samii says.

Samii says Iran is trying to continue to maintain military ties with powerful players like Herat Governor Khan and the Hezbe Wahdat faction in order to retain influence it built with them during the Taliban years, when Tehran, along with Russia, was a main backer of the anti-Taliban opposition. That opposition is now in power in Kabul as part of the UN-brokered interim administration, which is strongly supported by the West and particularly the U.S.

"Iran apparently is trying to keep all its options, because it sees Washington building up its influence in Kabul. The hard-liners in Iran are maintaining a back channel of military aid to sympathetic Afghan factions," Samii says. "But at the same time, Tehran is officially working to increase its influence through cooperative state-to-state programs with the interim administration."

One of Iran's official programs is to help Kabul improve its state television system, which affords Iran a window for presenting a favorable image of itself to the Afghan public. Part of Tehran's aid is providing the state TV with Iranian films, which are understandable to much of the Afghan population. Tehran also plans to cooperate with Kabul's official Bakhtar news agency.

So far, despite the frequent U.S. charges of Iranian interference in Afghanistan, the interim government in Kabul has publicly maintained that it sees no signs of Iran meddling in the country's domestic affairs.

Interim administration head Hamid Karzai is due to visit Iran next week. Iran's Foreign Minister Kharrazi told Reuters on 18 February that he believes Karzai's upcoming visit "will strengthen bilateral ties and help stabilize [Karzai's] government."

Karzai's visit likely means that the current frictions between Washington and Tehran over Afghanistan will continue for the foreseeable future. As Kharrazi also said on 18 February, Iran is "resolved to continue [its] presence in Afghanistan."

And that kind of promise can only increase worries in Washington about whether Tehran's presence ultimately will prove constructive or negative to its own interests.