IRANIAN INFLUENCE IN AFGHANISTAN

By Alastair Leithead BBC News, Herat, western Afghanistan

There is more power in Herat than the locals need. The pylons get smaller and smaller as they disappear in a long, straight line, across the wide-open, windswept desert, through the heat haze and over the horizon to Iran.

In the electricity sub-station just outside of Herat, western Afghanistan, there’s the loud hum of power – Iranian power.
More electricity reaches Herat than the city can use, but the industrial park just across the road from the Nato military base is putting it to good use.

Small plastic bottles of fizzy orange juice shuffle along the conveyor belt to be labelled and packed – the building is noticeably Iranian in design and the markings on the machinery show exactly which country helped these Afghan businessmen.

The camels grazing outside cautiously cross the fast, straight, asphalt road – one of the best roads in Afghanistan stretching the 120km to the border. Soon a railway line will link Afghanistan to Europe, or so boasts the Iranian government. “We are one of the major donors in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Bahrami, Iranian ambassador to Kabul.

The frontier runs for hundreds of kilometres and here, near the border post, both sides eye each other suspiciously from old mud forts and new wooden observation posts.

The intelligence reports that we get from our agents in Iran say some weapons come into Afghanistan….and US bases are springing up along the border. Given the fragile international relations between the US and Iran, there is a much bigger political reason to fight for influence in Afghanistan.

Afghan opium is smuggled between the gaps between observation towers to fuel Iran’s four million addicts, and there’s increasing concern about what is now travelling in the opposite direction. “The intelligence reports that we get from our agents in Iran say some weapons come into Afghanistan,” said Rahmatullah Safi, the border commander for western Afghanistan. “The weapons which the enemies use these days such as Kalashnikov, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, hand grenades, explosives – they are not coming from the sky, these definitely are coming from across the border.

“In Iraq the insurgency developed and they got more and more sophisticated. I believe we are seeing the same thing in Afghanistan, but fortunately they are still quite a long way behind Iraq.” Intelligence sources say Iranian agencies, but not necessarily the government, are talking to the Taleban and that weapons are on the move. ….But the Iranian ambassador dismisses the allegations of supplying weapons: “Strongly denied. Strongly denied and we are ready to make that clear,” he says.

Beautiful, ancient Herat with its huge citadel towering over the old city and its famous mud brick minarets has a multi-layered history of foreign powers using Afghanistan to expand their empires – to achieve their own global ambitions. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan came here. The British fought Persia here in the 1850s when the Great Game with Russia was at its height.

….Everyone, of course, is at it – even British, European and American forces are here to protect themselves from terrorism at home – it’s another bigger battle being fought in Afghanistan.
And when diplomatic games are played in other lands, it’s the people who suffer – it’s their lives which are caught up in someone else’s war.

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