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Afghan 'Money Bags' Point To Wider Iranian Outreach Strategy Toward Neighbors

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, left, shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, left, shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian
To the uninitiated, the shady handover of a stash of cash in a plastic bag seems more akin to a Martin Scorsese movie than part of a diplomatic strategy.

But when Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, confirmed that his chief of staff had been the recipient of just such a transaction to the tune of nearly $1 million from the Iranian ambassador to Kabul, he shone a light -- perhaps unwittingly -- on Iran's dynamic foreign policy toward its neighbors.

For the disbursement of such financial aid, described by Karzai as "transparent" despite an initial denial -- later rescinded -- from Iran's Kabul Embassy, is merely one manifestation of the Islamic republic's frenetic efforts to curry favor with nearby states, as Tehran seeks to foil Western attempts at isolating it.

In recent years, Iran has sought -- and earned -- the friendship of governments in Turkey, Iraq, the Caucasus, and even Pakistan, with whom relations had previously been uneasy and occasionally tense. Attempts to buy friends and influence people in Afghanistan is consistent with that strategy and may even become a focal point, some analysts believe, as Iran seeks a role in the country, when NATO forces eventually withdrawal.

Regional Persuasion

Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran, says Iran's payments to Afghanistan -- however unconventional -- are in keeping with its national interests and its approach to other neighbors. Tehran has "participated in the international pledging conferences for both Iraq and Afghanistan. They have a vital interest in the stability of both countries," he says.

While Dalton says he had not heard of such payments, he admits the news doesn't surprise him at all.

At a news conference on October 25, Karzai insisted relations between Kabul and Tehran were a two-way street. "We've also asked for things in return for this relationship, so it's a relationship between neighbors, and it will go on. We will continue to ask for cash help from Iran," Karzai said.

While the United States has accused Iran of effectively playing both sides by backing the Taliban insurgency, the benign signs of Tehran's role are apparent in the form of new roads it has funded in Afghanistan's western provinces.

Dalton says Iran's contacts with different sides in the Afghan conflict have been established with an eye to the future. "When the foreign troops go, the other governments of the region have to get on with their Afghan neighbor, and Iran has been working for the best possible contacts with the different political forces inside Afghanistan for some time now," he contends.

Pledges To Pakistan

Concern over Afghanistan's long-term future has partly driven Tehran to seek rapprochement with another neighbor, Pakistan, despite concerns about the treatment of that country's estimated 30 million-strong Shi'ite minority.

In September, while other Muslim countries were being criticized for being slow to help, Iran pledged $100 million in reconstruction assistance to Pakistan, following catastrophic floods that left millions of people homeless.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born commentator with the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company in Israel, believes the size of the pledge was indicative of an Iranian desire for closer ties with a country that has been an ally in the United States' "war on terror." It came on the back of improved intelligence-sharing and intense efforts by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran to court his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, according to Javedanfar.

"[Iran] sees that Pakistan is an important player in Afghanistan, and that's important for Iran's own security concerns, because Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are Iran's security concerns as well," Javedanfar says. Additionally, Javedanfar claims that Iran sees any leverage over Pakistan as a channel through which Iran could pressure the United States.

Influence Bearing Fruit

Improved relations may already have borne fruit for Iran in the form of Pakistani help earlier this year in the capture of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Sunni militant group Jundallah. Rigi, who was accused of masterminding several deadly attacks on Iranian forces and officials in Sistan-Baluchistan, and was arrested aboard a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan in February. He has since been executed. Iran had previously complained that Rigi and other Jundallah fighters were being sheltered in Pakistan.

Harsh Pant, a lecturer in defense studies at Kings College, London, says burgeoning Iran-Pakistan links may also have an economic component, as Tehran seeks customers for its oil and natural-gas reserves in the face of ever-tightening sanctions over its suspect nuclear program. "The much-hyped Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project for a long time was not going anywhere. But in recent months, we have seen movement on that front. Iran and Pakistan have decided to go ahead with the project," he says.

Pant thinks Pakistan's decision has greatly helped the two countries' relationship and is "a big signal to Iran that Pakistan will take a very independent line" than neighboring India.

Energy Heavyweight

Iran has been able to use its energy wealth to cultivate ties with other governments. With U.S. combat forces having recently left Iraq, attention has been focused on Iranian efforts to broker a deal with rival Shi'ite forces in the country that could produce a government friendly toward Tehran. A potential spin-off could be economic cooperation between Iran and Iraq that would enable the Islamic republic to circumvent international sanctions.

"Iran participated in the very first pledging conference for Iraq in 2003 and pledged half a billion dollars, which would contribute to the reconstruction of the Iraqi electricity system and linking it to Iran," Dalton says. "And they also wanted to link the Iraqi petroleum infrastructure to the Iranian one, so that oil swaps could be used to facilitate the oil exports of both countries."

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad flashes the V-sign for victory with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the Islamic republic inked a nuclear fuel swap deal in Tehran
Sitting on the world's second-largest natural gas reserves has enabled Iran to grow closer to Turkey, which now relies on its eastern neighbor for one-third of its supplies. The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sided with Iran in its dispute with the West over its uranium enrichment program. Insisting that Turkey will not observe unilateral sanctions passed by the United States or European Union, Erdogan has also pledged to triple trade between Turkey and Iran, which in 2008 was estimated at $10 billion.

Similarly, the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia have not escaped Iran's diplomatic and commercial attentions. Iran has proposed extending a natural-gas pipeline that supplies Armenia further north to reach Georgia. It has also arranged to send 15,000 Iranian tourists on chartered flights to Georgia's Black Sea resorts.

Meanwhile, Tehran has wooed Azerbaijan by calling for regional actors to provide solutions to problems such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the division of Caspian Sea energy resources, rather than have the issues settled by international arbitration.

The goal of such activity, some observers believe, is to acquire leverage that could be used to dissuade the Caucasian nations from agreeing to allow the U.S. to open a military base on their soil, close to Iran's northern border.

Whether such a ploy works remains to be seen. But when it comes to dispensing its wares, it is clear Iran is not confined to dishing out money in plastic bags.

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