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International Herald Tribune, December 27, 2006

Iran exploits new opportunities to spread its influence in Afghanistan

Iran has funneled millions of dollars to Shiite schools and charities ... one of the largest Shiite religious schools in Herat, was at the center of an effort to spread Shiite fundamentalism

By David Rohde

ISLAM QALA - Two years ago, foreign engineers built a new highway through the desert of western Afghanistan, past this ancient trading post and on to the outside world. Nearby, they strung a high-voltage power line and laid a fiber-optic cable, marked with red posts, that provides telephone and Internet access to the region.

Pro-Iran Wahdat Party fighters during the bloody years of 1992-96 in Kabul
RAWA: Gunmen of pro-Iran Hezb-e-Wahdat (Party of Unity) in Kabul in 1994. This party was made, supported and armed by Iranian regime and has been involve in heinous crimes against Afghan people but its leader Karim Khalili is vice-president today.

The modernization comes with a message. Every 8 to 16 kilometers, or 5 to 10 miles, road signs offer quotations from the Koran. "Forgive us, God," declares one. "God is clear to everyone," says another. A graceful mosque rises roadside, with a green glass dome and Koranic inscriptions in blue tile. The style is unmistakably Iranian.

All of this is fruit of Iran's drive to become a bigger player in Afghanistan, as it exploits new opportunities to spread its influence and ideas farther across the Middle East.


Iran has distributed its largess, more than $200 million in all, mostly here in the west but also in the capital, Kabul. It has set up border posts against the heroin trade, and next year will begin work on new road and construction projects and a rail line linking the countries. In Kabul, its projects include a new medical center and a water testing laboratory.

Iran's ambassador, Muhammad Reza Bahrami, portrayed his government's activities as neighborly good works, with a certain self-interest. Iran, he said, is eager to avoid repeating the calamities of the last 20 years, when two million Afghan refugees streamed over the border.

"Our strategy in Afghanistan is based on security, stability and developing a strong central government," he said. "It not only benefits the Afghan people, it's in our national interest."

Still, there are indications of other motives. Iranian radio stations are broadcasting anti-American propaganda into Afghanistan. Moderate Shiite leaders in Afghanistan say Tehran is funneling money to conservative Shiite religious schools and former warlords with longstanding ties to Iranian intelligence agencies.

And as the dispute over Iran's nuclear program has escalated, leading the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran on Saturday, Iranian intelligence activity has increased across Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials say. This has included not just surveillance and information collection but the recruitment of a network of pro-Iranian operatives who could attack American targets in Afghanistan. Last week, in London, British officials charged the interpreter for NATO's commanding general in Afghanistan with passing secrets to Iran.


Of far greater concern, according to American, European and Afghan officials, is Pakistan, America's ostensible ally against terrorism. They say the Pakistanis have allowed the Taliban to create a virtual ministate and staging base for suicide attacks just across Afghanistan's eastern border. Suicide attacks have quintupled, to 115 this year from 23 in 2005, killing more than 200 Afghan civilians.


Afghanistan, analysts say, is one example of the way Iran is increasingly spending its oil money in a variety of countries to realize its self-image as an ascendant regional power.

One Western official said that by focusing on high-profile construction projects, diplomacy and public relations, Iran was, in effect, employing American Cold War tactics to increase its soft power in the region.

In Iraq, that means not just financing an array of Shiite political parties and militias; the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said Tehran was already providing power and planned to build three hospitals and set up a $1 billion loan fund for Iraqi businesses. Similarly, Iran gave Hezbollah not just weapons and training but money for roads, schools and social services that made it the de facto government in south Lebanon. Iran has a small but growing presence in Syria, too.


Afghanistan, a fragile mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, has long been susceptible to intervention from more powerful neighbors. As the world's largest predominantly Shiite country, Iran is the traditional foreign backer of Afghanistan's Shiites, roughly 20 percent of the country's population.

During the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, Iranian Revolutionary Guards financed and trained fundamentalist Shiite militias, as well as Sunni fighters. In the civil war after the Russian withdrawal in 1989, Iran was a patron of the Northern Alliance, while Pakistan supported the ultimately victorious Taliban.

When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Germany that December, it was Iranian diplomats who stepped in to save foundering talks to form a new Afghan government, persuading the Northern Alliance to accept the agreement. Soon after, Iran pledged $560 million in aid and loans to Afghanistan over five years, a "startling" amount for a nonindustrialized country, according to James Dobbins, the senior American envoy to Afghanistan at the time.

A week later, President George W. Bush situated Iran on the "axis of evil." But even as they assailed that characterization, Dobbins said, Iranian officials privately offered to train Afghan soldiers. The Bush administration rejected the offer.

Today, the $4.5 billion American training and reconstruction effort dwarfs Iran's. But while the United States has built schools, government buildings, roads and clinics, a 2005 government audit found that reconstruction had been slowed by inconsistent financing, staff shortages and poor oversight. Amid the Taliban resurgence and public perception of corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai, recent opinion polls show optimism declining across the country.

Iranian officials said they had focused on roads and power as a quick way to strengthen Afghanistan's economy. A major project has involved upgrading roads linking Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman.

"Iran is providing a lot of assistance for religious and cultural activities in Afghanistan," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of his work. "That is the easy way to build influence."
International Herald Tribune, Dec. 27, 2005

In many ways, Muhammad Reza Dabbaghi, an engineer, embodies Iran's new approach in Afghanistan. Dabbaghi is the top executive here for the Iranian company that built the 113-kilometer highway through the desert to Iran two years ago, is paving much of the northwestern city of Herat and hopes to build the new railway, all with Iranian financing.

Dabbaghi said his company was trying to work in neighboring countries, but he complained that the United States was spreading "mass propaganda," lobbying governments not to hire Iranian companies, especially in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, American contractors, advisers and aid projects clearly dominate the city, but Iran is there, too. In addition to a handful of Iranian advisers at government ministries, Iranian experts have trained more than 1,200 Afghan teachers, librarians and diplomats.

Last year, the Iranian Embassy opened the Iranian Corner, a room in Kabul University's main library filled with computers, books and magazines from Iran, promoting Iran's ancient culture and modern achievements. Librarians say it is more popular than the adjoining United States Embassy-sponsored American Corner, primarily because it has a better Internet connection.

Afghanistan's economic reliance on Iran has increased in another way, as Taliban attacks have slowed the economy. Each morning, hundreds of Afghan men line up outside the Iranian missions in Herat and Kabul for visas to work in Iran. Iranian officials said they expected to issue up to 450,000 visas to Afghans this year, nearly twice the 250,000 issued in 2005.

In the murky world of western Afghanistan, centuries of Iranian influence have left many local people with a perception of Iran as all-powerful nemesis. Many said their lives would be in danger if they publicly criticized Iran or its Afghan proxies. Behind every suspicious event in the Afghan west, they contend, lies an Iranian hand.

Such accounts are clearly exaggerated. Still, Western and Afghan officials say that, beyond its much-trumpeted reconstruction program, Iran is also engaging in a range of activities it is less eager to publicize.

Qari Ahmad Ali, a Shiite commander once backed by Iran, said that since 2001, his former patrons had funneled millions of dollars to Shiite schools and charities in western Afghanistan. He said the Sadaqia Madrasa, one of the largest Shiite religious schools in Herat, was at the center of an effort to spread Shiite fundamentalism.

"Iran does not have military activities," Ali said. "They have political and social activities."

A senior Afghan intelligence official said that Radio Mashhad, a state-run station in northeastern Iran's largest city, broadcast anti-American messages over the border.

"Iran is providing a lot of assistance for religious and cultural activities in Afghanistan," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of his work. "That is the easy way to build influence."

Moderate Shiites agreed. "We worry about the situation," said Abbas Noyan, a Shiite member of Parliament. "Right now, the Iranians have a strong hand."

In interviews, three Shiite officials said new religious schools were being built with Iranian money. They also said that more Afghans were celebrating formerly obscure Shiite holidays.

Western diplomats said Iran's influence waned two years ago, after the United States doubled aid to Afghanistan and removed Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat and a powerful Iranian-backed warlord who dominated the west.

Since then, though, American troops have turned responsibility for Herat over to the Italians, and this year, the United States cut aid to Afghanistan by 30 percent. Iran, meanwhile, has kept its aid money flowing steadily and continued to back its proxies in the region, according to a Western diplomat.

In February, Herat experienced its first religious violence in decades. Six people were killed as Sunnis and Shiites staged gun battles on city streets, according to religious leaders.

Some local officials blamed Khan's protégé for fomenting the violence. Others attributed it to rising grass-roots Sunni-Shiite tensions.

In Kabul, though, Afghan government officials, desperate for aid, say they have decided to trust Iran's intentions.

"History may prove that overly optimistic," said Jawed Ludin, Karzai's chief of staff. "But it is in our interests today to trust our Iranian neighbors and expect the same in return."

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