US-Iran thaw could bolster Afghanistan rebuilding efforts
In The Hague this week, Iranian officials offered to cooperate with the US. Iran has pursued an ambitious redevelopment effort in Afghanistan since 2001.
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These investments might be the driving factor in Iran's interest in the country. Afghanistan is a valuable market for the Iranians, says Weinbaum: "Iranian businessmen are operating pretty freely in Afghanistan, and more consumer goods are being exported into the country from Iran."Skip to next paragraph
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Iran doesn't want an unstable neighbor
Another motivation for Iran might be the fear of a destabilized Afghanistan. "Their nightmare is that a radical Sunni group like the Taliban come to power next door," Weinbaum continues.
The Taliban and Tehran have been at odds for years. The ultraconservative Sunni militants view Shiite Islam and its adherents with severe hostility. During Afghanistan's civil wars in the 1990s, Iran supported Shiite groups and other non-Pashtun groups. It later backed the arch rivals of the Taliban government, the Northern Alliance.
Iranian officials also worry that a destabilized Afghanistan could spark a refugee crisis within its borders. Iran is already home to more than 2 million Afghan refugees, most of them illegal. The problem has caused tensions between Tehran and Kabul, as Iran periodically expels the illegal refugees.
Drug smugglers frequently infiltrate the 560-mile border between the two countries, driving up crime and opium addiction rates. Iranian officials have pledged to cooperate with US counternar- cotics efforts. "While Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, Iran is the world's largest consumer," writes the Hollings Center in its recent report.
Iranian officials have not yet outlined how they plan to help fight the drug trade, but some officials say they might increase border security to limit smuggling.
US, Afghans question Iran's motives
Despite pledges of cooperation, the US and Iran have much mutual suspicion to overcome. "Iran is certainly fearful of the US developing a strategic partnership with Afghanistan," says Weinbaum.
Officials in Tehran worry that the Americans will build permanent military bases in Afghanistan that could one day be used to launch attacks against Iran. Iran has been critical of US troop presence in the region, saying at Tuesday's conference that the planned increase in forces "will prove ineffective."
The US, for its part, has accused Iran of surreptitiously supporting the Afghan insurgency, citing instances in which Iranian-made weapons were recovered from the insurgents. But Iranian officials respond that such weapons are readily available on the black market and do not indicate active support from Tehran.
Many Afghans suspect Iran's motives. Due to its historical, religious, and cultural ties with Afghanistan's Persian-speaking minorities, who together make up roughly half of the country, Iran is sometimes perceived as favoring them with their support.
"They build everything for Shiites," says Kabul resident Fazel Minlallah.
Other Afghans are wary of Iran's cultural influence – the country is more socially liberal than Afghanistan and many returned refugees bring such ideas back home, causing tensions in this ultra-conservative society. In some cases, young Afghan women return from Iran and dress less conservatively, for example.
But the overlapping American, Afghan, and Iranian interests here suggest that the countries can find areas to work together. None of the countries involved, notes Weinbaum, wants Afghanistan to descend into instability or civil war, and therefore they have an interest in helping to rebuild and develop the country.