KABUL — Worried that U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Iran is mounting an aggressive campaign to fuel anti-American sentiment here and convince Afghan leaders that a robust, long-term security partnership with Washington would be counterproductive, Afghan officials and analysts say.
The Iranian initiative involves cultivating closer relations with the Taliban, funding politicians and media outlets, and expanding cultural ties with its eastern neighbor. Although the effort has been underway for years, Iran has been moving with increased vigor in recent months because the United States and Afghanistan are negotiating a security agreement that could set the parameters for a U.S. troop presence here after 2014.
Iran’s overtures to the Taliban coincide with a renewed push by Washington to hold peace talks with the insurgent group in
Qatar, as well as growing tension between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s strategy in Afghanistan is reminiscent of its maneuvering in Iraq, where it helped fuel the insurgency and persuaded Iraqi politicians not to yield on allowing the Americans a small military presence beyond 2011.
Tehran inked a bilateral defense agreement with Afghanistan last month. As the deal was being finalized, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi argued that foreign military bases in the region are the main cause of instability here. He expressed confidence that Afghanistan’s nascent security forces could secure the country without U.S. help.
The presence of American troops on Iran’s eastern and western flanks for much of the past decade has deeply concerned officials in Tehran. They fear that U.S. bases in the region enhance the West’s ability to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and could give the United States a major strategic advantage if the two countries go to war. Tension between Washington and Tehran soared last month after Iranian authorities recovered a CIA surveillance drone that had been launched from Afghanistan.
Sebghatullah Sanjar, who heads the Republican Party of Afghanistan, said the Iranian government in recent years has cut off fuel imports to Afghanistan during the winter and threatened to deport tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran.
“They use this to pressure the Afghan government,” said Sanjar, who is also a policy adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai but said he was not speaking for the government. “They know the Afghan government cannot take all those people back.”
Looking beyond 2014
Having failed to keep a small contingent of troops in Iraq past a 2011 withdrawal deadline, U.S. officials appear eager to reach a deal with Afghanistan that would include a substantial military partnership beyond 2014, when the Obama administration has pledged to end major combat operations in the country. The United States has far more leverage in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq because Kabul is expected to remain heavily dependent on foreign aid for years.
U.S.-Afghan negotiations over an agreement for an extended American military presence, initially planned to be finalized last year, have lagged as Karzai has used them as leverage to press his objections to night raids by U.S. forces in Afghan villages. American diplomats handling the negotiations have sought to mitigate the problem by encouraging Afghan military participation in the raids. U.S. officials said they expect the talks to resume this month, in hopes that an agreement can be concluded by late spring.