By Maria Abi-Habib
Iran is funding aid projects and expanding intelligence networks across Afghanistan, moving to fill the void to be left by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
While Iran's spending here is nowhere near the billions the U.S. spends, Tehran's ability to run grass-roots programs and work directly with Afghans is giving its efforts disproportionate clout—something it could wield against American interests should the U.S. military strike Iran's nuclear program.
"Iran is the real influence here. With one snap of their fingers, they can mobilize 20,000 Afghans," said a high-ranking official in Afghanistan's presidential palace. "This is much more dangerous than the suicide bombers coming from Pakistan. At least you can see them and fight them. But you can't as easily see and fight Iran's political and cultural influence."
Many leading Afghan government officials have received Iranian support for years. President Hamid Karzai two years ago admitted that his office has regularly received suitcases of cash from Tehran, with as much as $1 million in euros stuffed inside, in exchange for "good relations."
Afghanistan is important to Tehran's efforts to break out of its international isolation as Iran's main regional ally, Syria, battles an insurgency. A pro-Iranian militant group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has also been put on the defensive by the civil war in Syria, a Hezbollah benefactor.
Iran shares a language with many Afghans, about half of whom speak a dialect of Persian. Millions of Afghans work in Iran, and Iran is the main supplier of electricity to western Afghan cities like Herat, an hour's drive from the border. While Afghanistan is mainly Sunni Muslim, it has a large minority that shares Iran's Shiite branch of Islam.
In the Jubrayl neighborhood in Herat, Afghanistan, Iranian aid organizations have built mosques and madrassas and distributed money for housing and wedding expenses to the locals. Iran is funding aid projects and expanding intelligence networks across Afghanistan, moving to fill the void to be left by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. (Photo: Lorenzo Tugnoli/The Wall Street Journal)
Iran's main vehicle for spreading its influence across its eastern border is the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, or IKRC, a secretive aid organization that operates around the world. The U.S. blacklisted IKRC's branch in Lebanon two years ago for aiding Hezbollah.
Unlike the U.S. Agency for International Development, which disburses its aid through private contractors and sometimes even hides the aid's American origin, the IKRC works directly with Afghan applicants, combining economic help with seeding efforts to gather intelligence, Western and Afghan officials say.
According to an Afghan man named Ali, who says he worked for IKRC vetting applicants for aid, they must supply extensive information on backgrounds and contact details of their extended family. U.S. officials believe IKRC uses the process to ensure aid goes only to those loyal to Iran.
Iran's embassy in Kabul and consulate in Herat didn't respond to requests for comment.
A senior U.S. official predicted Iran's efforts would fail because Afghans view them with suspicion. "The Afghans know who their true friends are," the official said, adding that the U.S. would have an enduring partnership with Kabul but Iran won't.
In Herat, IKRC provides loans to build houses; monthly stipends of oil, sugar, tea and medicine; and vocational courses. "As human beings, we will receive aid from whoever provides it," said Ali. "America is absent."
One recipient is Masooma Karimi. When she and her husband-to-be needed money for a wedding, IKRC paid for it and for furniture and kitchen goods.
The Iranians also paid for the wedding of Dunya and Saytaki Husseini, providing $400 and traditional clothes for the ceremony. "The Iranians are doing more than the Americans," said Mr. Husseini. "Iran is in all of our lives."
Ms. Karimi and the Husseinis live in the Herat neighborhood of Jubrayl, with many ethnic Hazaras who, like Iranians, are Shiites. Iran has built it a library, school, clinics and smooth roads—all Afghanistan rarities.
On a recent day in the library, a stack of books bearing a portrait of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was piled on the floor awaiting distribution to children.
The library doesn't just spread Iranian propaganda. Young girls use one room to learn English. There are classes in computer science and math.
"I would be happy if the U.S. would provide this aid, too, but they don't," said Reza, the manager, who uses just one name. "So I'm working with Iranian aid."
Burka-clad women walked in and out of the Sabz-e-Parsyan clinic in Herat while male relatives waited outside. Founded using Iranian money, the Sabz-e-Parsyan clinic provides free health care to women and children in Herat. Most of the doctors trained in Iran. (Photo: Lorenzo Tugnoli/The Wall Street Journal)
An employee, however, said the library had little choice: Officials from the Iranian consulate in Herat threatened to cut off funding this spring unless the library promoted more Iranian programs.
Another demand, the employee said, was to commemorate the June 3 anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. The library, needing the funds, agreed to increase its classes on Iranian culture.
"Soft power" isn't the only kind Iran projects. Herat provincial officials say they have seen a rise in insurgent activity by groups with Iranian backing. Insurgents "have safe houses in Iran and fight against the Afghan government," said Herat's governor, Daoud Saba.
In August, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had let the Taliban open an office in Iran and was increasing its support to the insurgency, aiming to speed up the U.S.-led coalition's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a meeting in China with Afghanistan's Mr. Karzai, said if the U.S. or Israel attacked Iranian sites, Iran would target U.S. Afghan bases, said officials who attended the meeting.
Western diplomats call Iran's moves partly a reaction to U.S. and European sanctions aimed at its nuclear ambitions, which have caused its currency to fall and inflation to rise. "They cannot attack Washington or London, but they can attack us," a senior Afghan official said.
Afghan officials say Iranian diplomats have long funded Afghan media outlets, and in August, officials in Iran's embassy in Kabul met with four Afghan TV stations and three newspapers in an effort to establish a union of Afghan journalists that would voice the Iranian line.
Afghanistan's intelligence agency struck back, arresting several Iranian journalists it claimed were Iranian spies. A Kabul-based reporter for Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency remains in custody.
Mobarez Rashidi, Afghanistan's deputy minister of culture and information, acknowledged that the U.S.-led coalition, too, has funded the Afghan media to foster pro-American views. He drew a distinction. "We welcome countries that support media clearly and openly," he said.
Unlike the U.S., which focuses aid on restive provinces where the Taliban are strong, Iran empowers those that tend to be pro-Iranian.
Permission to enter Iran is potent tool. At Iranian-run clinics and mosques in Herat, when Afghans seek to enter Iran for medical care or a pilgrimage, only those deemed loyal to Iran get visas, said a senior Western official in Herat.
Herat's provincial health director felt Iran's wrath in 2008 when he sought to inspect an Iranian-funded clinic that was accused of giving patients pro-Iranian propaganda. The clinic, Sabz-e-Parsyan, is a gatekeeper for Afghans seeking treatment in Iran. The provincial official, Ghulam Sayed Rashed, says its staff refused to let him inspect the building fully.
He ordered the clinic shut until an inspection was completed, but two days later was overruled by a higher Herat official. The clinic's current director said he wasn't aware of the incident and denied any pro-Iran activity.
In any case, says Mr. Rashed, he and his family members have been denied visas to visit Iran ever since.—Ziaulhaq Sultani, Habib Khan Totakhil and Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.
Originally published on Oct. 26, 2012