How U.S.-Iran Tensions Are Tied To Afghanistan

To the United States, Iran is a pariah state. To Afghanistan, Iran is a powerful neighbor that could help promote development and stability, and that puts U.S. foreign policy in conflict. On one hand, Washington is looking for every opportunity to contain Tehran. But, if Iran chooses to help achieve the American goal of peace and stability in Afghanistan, the U.S. might have to turn a blind eye.

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In the eyes of the U.S., Iran is a pariah state. To Afghanistan, Iran is a powerful neighbor, which can be both good and bad. Iran and the U.S. do have some shared interests in Afghanistan, but the tension between the Washington and Tehran makes Afghan officials uneasy.

NPR's Sean Carberry traveled to Herat Province, along the Afghan border with Iran, and filed this report on a complicated relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Herat Province, which borders Iran, is one of the more stable and vibrant provinces in Afghanistan. The pine tree-lined streets of Herat City are packed with shops like the one owned by Seif Huddein.

SEIF HUDDEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: The 26-year old has run this store for two years. He sells kitchenware, toys and other trinkets. Like many people in western Afghanistan, he spent time in exile in Iran. He says that Iran has done a few things to help Afghanistan since the Taliban fell.

HUDDEIN: (Through Translator) Sixty percent of the electricity in Herat comes from Iran, and Iran paved 120 kilometers of road from the border to Herat City. The people are happy about the good works Iran has done here, but the people know that Iran is not a good country. The owner of the shop next door agrees.

ABDUL MALIK: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: Abdul Malik says the Iranian government looks down on Afghans and treats them badly, especially the two million refugees still in Iran.

ABDUL-QAIUM SAJJADI: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: Abdul-Qaium Sajjadi is a member of the Afghan parliament. He alleges Iran is dumping cheap goods into Afghanistan in an effort to undermine local manufacturers and the economy. He says this is in stark contrast to Iran's public statements of support for Afghanistan. Sajjadi and others say Iran is playing a variety of games that contradict its official line.

KATE CLARK: They certainly continue to fund senior members of the government.

CARBERRY: Kate Clark is the senior analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network, a think tank in Kabul.

CLARK: The president's former chief of staff came back with millions of dollars stuffed into plastic bags, and when asked about it, President Karzai said well, why not.

CARBERRY: U.S. and Afghan officials say Tehran also tried to buy votes in the Afghan parliament recently, against the strategic partnership agreement between Kabul and the U.S. In a snub that's a source of pride among many Afghans, most lawmakers pocketed the cash and still voted for the agreement. Kate Clark says Iran has even sought to buy influence with the Taliban.

CLARK: There shouldn't be good relations between Taliban and the Iranians. The Taliban are militant Sunnis. The Iranian government is militant Shia, but there is a shared interest in enmity with the Americans.

CARBERRY: U.S. officials assert that Iran's top policy objectives in Afghanistan are to drive out the U.S. and ensure there's a pro-Iranian regime here. But one official who spoke anonymously says Iran fails to recognize that most Afghans, even the sizeable Shia community, don't like the Iranian regime. Still, the Afghan government continues to strike a conciliatory tone.

JANAN MOSAZAI: We have no alternative, but to be supportive, cooperative, and neighbors to one another.

CARBERRY: Janan Mosazai is the spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

MOSAZAI: What we have accomplished over the past ten years, so far, is this balance. And we have managed to do that with understanding from both sides, both on the Iranian side and from the American side.

CARBERRY: Mosazai says Kabul sees the potential for large-scale investment from Iran, in the construction, mining, agriculture, and other sectors, all of which are critical for Afghanistan's future. The U.S. recognizes that Afghanistan does need humanitarian and economic support from Iran, but the tension between Washington and Tehran could cause more problems for Kabul, says Kate Clark.

CLARK: The bad Iranian-American relationship actually makes Afghanistan vulnerable, if that relationship gets so bad that Iran feels it has to use asymmetric warfare to get back at America.

SAJJADI: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: Lawmaker Abdul-Qaium Sajjadi and other officials fear Iran might take punitive action, such as expelling the Afghan refugees. So Kabul continues to ask Tehran and Washington to take their fight outside. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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