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.

Cynthia Boll/Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Reuters
At the Afghanistan Conference in The Hague on Tuesday, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (center l.) shook hands with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh (r.).

In a crowded section near the western edge of the capital sits a sprawling new university compound, a structure of ornate white stone and blue-tiled domes.

As hundreds of students here file in for morning classes, many say they have one country to thank for helping to improve higher learning in this education-starved country: Iran.

The $100 million university is one of Iran's many development projects across Afghanistan – and just the type of contribution Washington wants to bring positive change to this troubled country. 

At an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague this week, Iranian officials offered to cooperate with the United States on developing and reconstructing Afghanistan. Though deep mistrust remains between the two countries, the move marked a thaw in relations and could facilitate Washington's efforts to turn the situation around here.  

"The conference underlines Iran's willingness to play a cooperative role and can jump-start Obama's policy of getting more support throughout the region," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst on Afghanistan-Pakistan and currently a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute based in Washington.

More cooperation between Washington and Tehran could bolster development efforts. For example, according to "Afghanistan's Other Neighbors: Iran, Central Asia, and China," a recent report from the Washington-based think tank, the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, the US forbade contractors to purchase cheaper and more readily available Iranian asphalt to build a key highway here, presumably because of the hostile relations between the two countries.  

Iran's support is crucial, Mr. Weinbaum says, because of its longstanding political, cultural, and economic interests in Afghanistan.

For example, Tehran has been working on an ambitious development plan here since 2001, mostly near its shared border with Afghanistan but also in the north and in major cities. Iran's projects provide a glimpse of how much more it could help the country in the future, says Weinbaum. 

According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella organization that tracks aid here, Iran has disbursed nearly a half-billion dollars in aid since 2001. In fact, Iran is one of the most effective donors in the country, delivering 93 percent of the aid it has pledged. By comparison, the US has delivered only 48 percent of $5 billion in pledged aid; India has contributed 24 percent of its $200 million in pledged aid.

The western city of Herat has boomed with Iran's beneficence. Unlike most of the country, the city boasts 24-hour electricity, dozens of industrial zones, paved roads, and more. Iran is responsible for much of this, according to government officials. Elsewhere, Iran has built mosques and education centers and provided loans to Afghan businessmen. Iranian entrepreneurs have poured investment dollars into the country. 

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." 

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. 

"They don't help the Pashtun people," says lawmaker Najib Kabuli. "They use their money to win influence, like they do in Lebanon," where Iran supports the Shiite group Hezbollah.

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. 

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