By Aryaman Bhatnagar
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Iran has invested heavily in Afghanistan, particularly in western Afghanistan. Tehran has sought to develop the western provinces – particularly Herat, Nimruz and Farah – as its spheres of influence, which could also act as a buffer if a civil war was to break out in Afghanistan. As the 2014 deadline is fast approaching, Iran is attempting to further consolidate and enhance its clout in the country. Apart from signing a strategic agreement pact late last year, the two countries have also inked an economic cooperation agreement and a prisoner transfer deal. However, Iran’s hostile relations with countries such as the US because of its controversial nuclear programme have been and will continue to be an obstacle to its soft power arc in Afghanistan.
Iran’s ‘constructive’ role in Afghanistan
Iran’s spending spree in Afghanistan has been key to its current standing in Afghanistan and has generally been appreciated by both the Afghan government and people. Having provided close to a billion dollars in aid over the past decade, Iran is a leading donor to Afghanistan, being one of the few nations to have actually delivered on its pledges. Iranian aid has been instrumental in infrastructure development and the opening up of business and economic opportunities.
Moreover, through its support and funding of educational, religious and media institutions, Iran has managed to directly engage the Afghan population and develop close ties with certain religious and ethnic groups, which have become the basis of Iran’s influence in Afghanistan. The efforts to link up Afghanistan to Central Asia and China to the Persian Gulf through roads and railways originating in Iran also signals a projection of its existing influence to emerge as the main hub for the ‘silk route’ trade.
An end to Iran’s spending spree?
The consolidation of the above gains and the achievement of future objectives would require Iran to continue a considerable amount of investment in Afghanistan. However, the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme is likely to prevent that from happening.
The current round of sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, which have targeted the main source of Tehran’s income – revenue from oil exports – seem to have severely dented Tehran’s spending abilities. A number of EU countries have already halted their purchase of Iranian oil and once the EU sanctions are fully imposed starting 1 July, European demand is expected to dry up completely. More prominent customers of Iran’s oil – India, Japan and South Korea – have also significantly reduced their imports. As a result, Iranian exports have fallen by 40 per cent since the beginning of the year, translating into an estimated US$10 billion in lost revenue.
The fallout has been immediate. Reports have already emerged about the scrapping of several projects resulting in unemployment and massive cut-backs in the multi-million dollars worth of government subsidies. Iran has also been forced to make compromises on certain foreign policy goals reflected in the reduction of its financial support for Hezbollah. It is highly likely that Iran would have to significantly scale-down its current levels of spending in Afghanistan, and would also be unable to complete a number of important projects, such as the proposed railway to China and Central Asia.
American presence in Afghanistan
Despite Iran’s constructive role in Afghanistan, the aid from the US and other Western allies has been substantially higher and is likely continue in the future. This definitely cuts into Iran’s influence as Afghanistan is not, and will never be, overwhelmingly dependent on Tehran.
However, Iran’s perception of the American threat and consequent response to it is likely to be more counterproductive to its cause. It has long held the view that the US troops stationed in Afghanistan pose a security threat to Iran and, for this reason, has constantly attempted to thwart them. These have included attempts to influence Afghan parliamentarians to vote against the US-Afghan strategic pact, fuel anti-American sentiments through the manipulation of the media and educational institutions, and cut off its fuel supplies to Afghanistan. Iran has also sent in shiploads of textbooks into western Afghanistan, which have been found offensive by the Sunni Muslims. The incitement of sectarian tensions, along with the covert and measured support provided to the Taliban is meant to make the task of managing the country even tougher for the US.
Although Iran may be seeking to protect its own interests through such sabotage, it is risking damage to its image in Afghanistan. The Afghan parliament has already warned Iran against interfering in the country’s political affairs. According to Mohammad Ali Karimi, a lecturer at Kabul University, there is growing resentment among the people in Afghanistan towards the interference of Iran in its political affairs. If it is not careful, Iran runs the risk of being viewed through the same negative prism as Pakistan is generally viewed – essentially a ‘spoiler’ willing to interfere in Afghanistan to further its goals, even at the expense of Afghanistan.
Research Officer, IPCS
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