Iran's fuel blockade strains relations with Afghanistan, prompts protests

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 17, 2011

KABUL - A protracted fuel blockade by Iran sparked protests in Afghanistan for the second day in a row Sunday as tensions rose between the Islamic neighbors, who share a long border and a complicated history.

Afghan demonstrators in the western border city of Herat threw eggs and stones at the Iranian consulate, protesting the six-week border blockade of fuel tankers passing through Iran that has caused prices of gasoline and winter heating fuel to rise between 35 and 60 percent across the country.

Afghanistan's commerce minister, Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, said at a news conference in the capital Sunday that the government was "not happy" with Iran, marking the first public criticism of the actions by Afghan officials. He said the Afghan government had not received any plausible explanation for the blockade, which has left up to 2,000 fuel trucks stranded on the border. "Whatever reason they have given is not acceptable to us," Ahady said.

Iranian officials said they were stopping the fuel transports because the government suspects the product ends up with NATO - and perhaps U.S. - forces in Afghanistan. "We have news that fuel transited through Iran is handed over to NATO forces. We are extremely worried about this," Fada Hossein Maleki, Iran's ambassador to Afghanistan, told the official Islamic Republic News Agency on Jan. 5.

"We will provide fuel for the people, but no one has the right to give it to the military of a country who will use it against the interests of the nations of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.

NATO officials here have repeatedly denied that the fuel was being sold to U.S. and NATO troops fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Ahady said that until early December, about 2,400 tons of fuel per day had been entering Afghanistan through Iran, most of it coming from Iraq. That had supplied almost half the nation's domestic fuel needs, he said, but once it stopped, a poorly regulated system of private fuel importation had left the country without a plan to manage the crisis. He pledged that Afghanistan would import 200,000 tons of fuel through other routes in the coming month.

Afghan news media reported this week that Iran had reacted angrily to a series of protests outside its embassy in Kabul and its consulate in Herat, calling in the Afghan ambassador in Tehran and demanding that the protest organizers be arrested.

Maleki told the news agency that, after the protests in front of his embassy, Iran had demanded the arrest of the "key elements of this suspicious act." If that happens, he said, "the Islamic Republic of Iran might reconsider the fuel transit."

But some Afghan officials and many civilians have complained that Iran has no right to dictate to its government.

The crisis has added a new chapter to the tense and contradictory relationship between the two countries. Iran has long served as an economic and wartime safety valve for millions of Afghan refugees, while Afghan rivers provide a steady flow of water to Iran under a 60-year-old agreement. Iran, the wealthier and more powerful neighbor, has also been providing financial support to Kabul, some of it in the form of cash payments to President Hamid Karzai.

Yet many Afghans suspect that Tehran wants to weaken their country, undermine its alliance with the West and increase Shiite Muslim influence in their Sunni-dominated society. There are periodic reports of covert Iranian activities in Afghanistan, and constant tensions along the border where thousands of Afghans cross back and forth.

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