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Iran participated in the formation of the post-Taliban government in the Bonn Conference in December 2001 and contributed to reconstruction efforts, with the aim of establishing friendly ties with Kabul. invasion of Afghanistan ushered in a fresh chapter in relations between Iran and Afghanistan. While the Iranian leaders welcomed the fall of the Taliban, they also saw the presence of American troops in neighboring Afghanistan as a national security threat. Tehran’s support for insurgent groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, has been a source of great anxiety for the ISAF and Afghan forces struggling to stabilize Afghanistan. Iran and Afghanistan share a 582-mile (936-km) border along a plain in western Afghanistan. The Iranian-Afghan border crosses through several deserts and marshlands. The Afghan provinces of Herat, Farah, and Nimruz border Iran. Iran and Afghanistan share several religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups that create cultural overlaps between the two countries. Iran has a population of 66.4 million and it is one of the world’s only Shia-majority states, with Shia Muslims comprising 89 percent of the population or 58.6 million of people. Iran also has a Sunni Muslim minority, which accounts for nine percent of the population or 5.9 million people. Although Afghanistan is predominately Sunni Muslim (80 percent, roughly 27 million people), it does have a sizeable Shia minority, which accounts for nineteen percent of the population or roughly 6.2 million people. The Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic group which is concentrated mainly in central Afghanistan, with major communities present in western Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, constitutes a large portion of Afghanistan’s Shia. The Hazara make up roughly nine percent of Afghanistan’s population or 2.9 million people. Fifty-eight percent of Iranians or 38.2 million speak Persian, while half of all Afghans or 16.3 million speak one of several dialects of Persian (Dari). The Turkmen population in Afghanistan is concentrated mainly along the northern border with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Baluch are another ethnic group that lives in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The Baluch constitute two percent of the Iranian population or roughly 1.3 million people. Afghanistan’s Baluch’s population lives mainly in the southwest of the country, along its borders with Iran and Pakistan. Both Afghanistan and Iran have a remarkably young population. Over sixty percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. In Iran, more than half of the population is under the age of 25. The Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran coincided with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Entangled with domestic problems, estrangement with the United States over the hostage crisis, and later the war with Iraq, Khomeini’s regime maintained relations both with the Soviet Union and its satellite regime in Kabul. During the anti-Soviet resistance year, while the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan tended to back mainly Sunni-fundamentalist Pashtun mujahideen groups, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, Iran generally supported Persian-speaking or Shia groups, mainly among the Hazara. These mujahideen received funding, training, supplies, weapons, and sanctuary in Iran. In 1988, Iran strengthened and united several of these Hazara factions into the Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami or Islamic Unity Party, and Tehran continued to support the organization during the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Wary of a Sunni-fundamentalist Pashtun state on its eastern border, Iran viewed the rise of the Taliban in 1994 and their seizure of Kabul in 1996 as a serious security, ideological, and economic threat. Thus, Tehran supported the formation of an anti-Taliban coalition composed of mostly Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara factions—including Hezb-e Wahdat. This United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance, was led by deposed ethnic Tajik President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Other important leaders included Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and Tajik warlord Ismail Khan, a member of Rabbani and Massoud’s Jamiat-e Islami. Iran, along with Russia, provided arms and funding to the Northern Alliance throughout the civil war, while Pakistan and Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban. The Taliban, for its part, backed Sunni Islamist militants who were launching attacks against the Iranian regime. In 1998, Taliban forces captured Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan from Dostum and massacred thousands of Hazara civilians, in addition to nine Iranians with diplomatic credentials. Incensed at the killing of its citizens and the Taliban’s horrific treatment of Shia minorities, Iran amassed a quarter of a million troops along the border with Afghanistan and threatened to invade. Ultimately, a military confrontation between Iran and the Taliban was averted. But when a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban, Iran was not disappointed. Iran played a key role in Afghanistan’s state-formation and reconstruction process in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s ouster. Under the auspices of the UN, Tehran participated in the Bonn Conference, and was instrumental to the final agreement, which established the Afghan Interim Authority in December 2001. Iran subsequently pursued a sophisticated policy towards Afghanistan. The event summary broadly defines Iran’s interests in Afghanistan through the prism of: the flow of Afghan refugees to Iran who have “adverse social and economic” impact on the Iranian society; containing of “radicalism” ; and drug trafficking. It has sought greater influence over the government in Kabul, and remains wary of the U. The reviewers assert that: “The more stability and development in Afghanistan, the more secure will be Iran’s interests” and express—with confidence—that Iran can “secure its interests in Afghanistan despite foreign competition.” But to better understand Iran’s Afghanistan policy, two recent events are illuminating: o During the winter of 2008-2009, when the lack of electricity became one of the major news stories in Afghan media, and public outrage against the ministry of Water and Power was at its peak, the Iranian Embassy announced selling 25 million liters of oil at cheaper price to Afghanistan to help with Kabul’s electricity supply.(It is worth noting that the minister of Water and Electricity—Ismael Khan—has a history of close ties to Tehran.) o In January 2009—during the same winter Iran forcefully deported over 8000 Afghans in one week in the midst of a cold winter. The Kabul based daily Hasht-e-Sobeh (8 AM) observed that the forceful deportations were a part of Iranian policy to illustrate to the U. that Iran can make life hard in Afghanistan, especially, the paper noted, after President Obama did not respond to Mahmud Ahmadinezhad’s letter. The above anecdotes are telling of Iran’s multilayered approach: Iran mixes alignment with the needs of the Afghan people with reminding the international community—precisely the U. Observers also argue that If India and Pakistan are thought to be playing out their rivalry in Afghanistan, the same can be said about the Iranian-Saudi regional competition. Dating back to the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, the Taliban era, and the recent Saudi involvement in connection with the “talks with the Taliban”, Iran’s policy and instruments of it have often been opposed to that of Saudi Arabia. Observing Iran’s general outlook towards Afghanistan—evident in the summary of the above mentioned policy review session—unveils a very ethnic and faction charged perception from Tehran. Iranian policy rests on the mindset that Iran is the guardian of Afghanistan’s Farsi speakers—Tajiks and Hazaras—and its Shias against an often intrusive Pashtun power. It is important to note that the Iranian sentiment of guardianship is not shared with equal zest by Afghanistan’s Farsi speakers, or ethnic Hazaras and other Shias. Views towards Iran differ significantly in those crowds. Some are very friendly to Iran, perhaps because they either have some ties to Iran through education or when they were refugees, or because they are currently consuming Iranian literature and broadcasts. Others hold a deep distaste for Iran mainly for what they perceive as Iran’s dissemination of religiously charged “backwardness” in their communities through the elevation and support of Qum educated Ayatollahs. One of those Ayatollahs is Ayatollah-ul-Uzma Sheikh Asif Mohseni. Mohseni is a former anti-Soviet resistance and later militia leader who is very close to the Iranian religious establishment. He owns the gigantic Hawza-Elmia-Khatim-Ul-Nabien, a hybrid of a madrassa and a modern university which is a 13 million dollar investment in over a hectare of land at the center of Kabul. Mohseni has also launched a TV channel—Tamadun/Civilization—that does not play music, and is loaded with Iranian inspired, and/or produced programming. Sheikh Mohseni denies any political or financial links with Iran. He claims the funds for his projects are from the leftovers of donations and international money his group—Harakat-e-Eslami—received during the anti-Soviet Wars. He also claims that his institution has no factional—Shia—bias (it enrolls both Shias and Sunnis.) Yet the Iranians have often claimed credit for developments that have been led or orchestrated by Sheikh Mohseni—including the recognition of Jafria (Shia) jurisprudence in Afghanistan’s new constitution. However, Iran is not just a transit point for these drugs as they are smuggled into the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. Iran itself has a significant drug problem, with at least three million opiate abusers in the country and the highest rate of opiate abuse in the world—about 2.8 percent of the population aged 15 to 64; and opiate abuse is rapidly rising. Iran has committed itself to combating the drug epidemic within its borders, cracking down on domestic opium cultivation and interdicting drug shipments from Afghanistan. The Iranian authorities routinely make the largest seizures of opiates out of any country in the world. However, Iran realizes that it can never effectively deal with drug abuse among its own citizens unless something is done about opium production in neighboring Afghanistan. Thus, the government in Tehran has developed a constructive relationship with Kabul in the field of counternarcotics, though questions remain about Iran’s role in impeding Afghanistan’s entry into the safron market as an alternative to the poppy crops. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war, Iran became home to more than three million Afghan refugees. The majority of these refugees came from the Tajik and Hazara communities, but other ethnic groups were also represented among the refugee population. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Iran has continued to host two million Afghan refugees, although one million of these refugees are said to be unregistered and therefore have no legal permit to reside in Iran. According to Tehran, the Afghan refugees represent a significant burden on the economy and society of Iran, but the situation in Afghanistan has not allowed the return of these refugees to their home country. However, Tehran has repeatedly used the refugee issue in order to apply pressure to the government in Kabul and its American and European backers. For example, the Iranian government has on several occasions threatened and begun to repatriate by compulsion the one million “unregistered” Afghans living in Iran. The Afghan government does not have the capacity to deal with such a sudden influx of refugees, and this has proven to be an embarrassment for both Kabul and the US-led coalition. In May 2007, Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr Rangin Dadfar-Spanta, and the Minister for Refugee affairs, Ustad Akbar, were dismissed from office by the Afghan parliament for their inability to stop the deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran. Yet, in response to an Afghan delegation’s visit to Tehran in December 2008 and fears that forced repatriation during the winter months would spark a humanitarian crisis, the Iranian government nominally halted the refugee repatriation until March 2009. Reportedly, over ten thousand Afghans were forcefully deported from Iran only in the early weeks of January 2009. As early as 2002, allegations emerged that Iran was supporting insurgent groups in Afghanistan, including its former archenemy the Taliban. These allegations have intensified over recent years, as several large weapons shipments have been seized near the Iranian border. The Afghan National Army 205th Corps commander, Rahmatullah Safi, has said there is substantial intelligence showing weapons flowing into Afghanistan from Iran. In January 2008, Farah Police Chief Brigadier General Khial Baz Sherzoi revealed that security forces had discovered a depot of mines smuggled from Iran in Anar Dara District of western Farah Province. In the same time, Abdul Samad Stanakzai, a former governor of the western Farah Province, claimed that Iran was training "a large number of political opponents of the government" in a refugee camp in Iran called Shamsabad. The government in Tehran denies any claims that it is aiding the Taliban. A multi-ethnic, stable Afghanistan serves Iran’s economic and security interests. While Tehran does not want to see a Taliban comeback in Kabul, it is wary of the presence of so many US troops on its frontiers and Washington’s increasingly aggressive posture in recent years. Thus, some analysts argue that Iran favors the maintenance of a low level insurgency as long as US troops remain in Afghanistan. Such a low intensity conflict would tie down the US military and alleviate US and international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and other controversies. Top One area in which Tehran has sought to exert influence over Afghan affairs is in the field of economic assistance. Iran pledged US$ 560 million at the Tokyo Conference on the Reconstruction of Afghanistan in 2002, and an additional US$ 100 million at the 2006 London Conference. Much of the Iranian aid to Afghanistan has been spent on infrastructure projects—mainly transportation links between Iran, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian Republics—something which is clearly in the national interest of Iran. A 76-mile (123-km) road linking Herat in western Afghanistan to the Dogharoun region in Iran has already been completed, and work is underway to link Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, which would alleviate Afghan dependence on the Pakistani port of Karachi. In January 2009, President Hamid Karzai and Indian Foreign Minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated a new road between Zaranj and Delaram, connecting Nimruz Province to Chabahar in Iran. Iran has encouraged this trade, granting Afghan exporters a 90% discount on port fees, a 50% discount on warehousing charges, and giving Afghan vehicles full transit rights on the Iranian road system. Commerce between the two countries—minus petroleum—amounts to over a billion dollars a year. There is also a multi-billion-dollar project to connect Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan via rail, and construction of the first leg from the Iranian border to Herat is already underway. Such transportation links with Iran provide the land-locked and isolated Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics with an outlet to the world economy, increasing commerce in addition to Iranian influence. However, Iranian aid to Afghanistan has not been limited to transportation infrastructure and has included support for a variety of projects, such as the construction of a dental college and a water research facility. Remittances from Afghan laborers in Iran amount to a considerable, 6% (around $500 million) of the Afghan GDP. Hundreds of thousands of young—and sometimes old—Afghan laborers brave harsh conditions to enter Iran illegally for work, mostly in the construction sector. Afghanistan represents a significant untapped export market for Iranian products. Therefore, Iran has sought to foster closer economic ties with its eastern neighbor ever since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. For example, Iran has attempted to reduce Afghanistan’s economic dependence on Pakistan (and thus increase its dependence on Iran) by allowing the land-locked Afghans to use the Iranian port of Chabahar to import and export goods as an alternative to the Pakistani port of Karachi. Furthermore, Iran has encouraged Afghan businesses to relocate their international offices from the United Arab Emirates to Iran. In 2008, Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan agreed to form the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union. -------------------------------------------- Endnotes United States Department of State, “2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR),” Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, February 27, 2009; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Responding to drug use and HIV in Iran,” November 19, 2008.