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Is Iran meddling in Afghanistan?

President Hamid Karzai, in meetings in Washington this week, said Iran is a valuable ally. But Afghan officials have grown increasingly wary of their Western neighbor.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2007

Islam Qala, Afghanistan

Iran's broadening influence beyond its border with Iraq, together with its pursuit of nuclear technology, has Europe and the US on alert.

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Now, its role along its opposite border here in Afghanistan is facing scrutiny, as well. It was a source of disagreement between President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai during the past two days of talks at Camp David.

Mr. Karzai told CNN just before his meeting with Bush that Iran "has been a helper and a solution."

But key members of the Bush administration disagree, with Mr. Bush saying Aug. 6 that the burden was on Iran to prove that it is not a "destabilizing force."

Both views could be correct, say experts and Afghan officials, and they reflect the subtlety of Iran's efforts to play both sides – to support the fledgling Karzai government, yet also to secure its own strategic aims in the region and beyond.

The interception of Iranian-made weapons in Afghanistan, as well as reports of increased insurgent activity along the Iranian border, are seen as a message to the West, in particular.

"They're saying, 'We're cooperating on the ground,' " says Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va. " 'But we can make a mess for you much bigger than Iraq' " if Europe and the US keep threatening action against Iran's nuclear program.

Iran plays two games in Afghanistan

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Iran has been a useful neighbor to Afghanistan, maintaining peace along its border and undertaking a variety of development projects, particularly here in the border province of Herat.

Given that Iran and the Taliban were enemies who nearly went to war in 1998, "Iran benefited from the fall of the Taliban, too," says Sultan Ahmad Baheen, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Yet even as Afghanistan maintains a diplomatic gloss toward its powerful neighbor, Afghan government officials are worried that Iran is meddling to gain leverage on a variety of issues, both within the country and with the Western nations whose troops are deployed here.

"Iran is playing two games," says Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, president of the Council of Professionals, a group of analysts and businesspeople in Herat.

"The first policy is to support the government because it prefers this to the Sunni extremists of the Taliban," he says. "The second game is an anti-American policy: Whatever they can do to defeat Americans here, they will do it."

Iranian officials have repeatedly denied such allegations. Indeed, it is a matter of tradition in Afghanistan to blame the nation's woes on the interference of outsiders. But normally, such allegations are levied primarily at Pakistan, whose intelligence services are seen as funding and harboring Taliban leadership. By contrast, Afghanistan's relations with Iran during the past six years have been cordial, even exceptional.

"For most of the past few years, Iran has always been singled out as an exemplary neighbor by all sides," says Professor Tarzi.