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.

The United States has said that it seeks no permanent bases in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon hopes to leave 10,000 to 30,000 troops here. It has said that they would be positioned on Afghan bases.

But Iran has rejected the distinction, making clear its opposition to the American military presence and taking advantage of the U.S.-Afghan disagreement to press its case.

In their public comments, Iranian officials have emphasized their desire to play a constructive role in Afghanistan — and have suggested that the motives for the U.S. presence are nefarious. At an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, last month, Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister, condemned what he called the “violation of human rights by foreign military forces, including frequent attacks on residential areas.”

“Certain Western countries seek to extend their military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 by maintaining their military bases there,” Salehi said at the conference, which was attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Regional cooperation in Afghanistan would succeed, he said, only if the Afghans “discard the presence of foreign military forces and especially disallow the founding of foreign military bases in Afghanistan.”

A Western diplomat in Kabul said Iran appeared to make a concerted effort to influence a meeting convened by Karzai in November to get input from Afghan leaders about the type of long-term partnership Kabul should seek with Washington.

The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said that participants in the meeting — known as a jirga — indicated that some members of the group had received millions of dollars from Iranian proxies.

But the participants concluded that Afghanistan ought to seek a long-term security partnership with the United States.

“Whatever influence Iran has, the people at the jirga got the importance of the U.S. relation,” the diplomat said.

Cultivating Taliban ties

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Iran’s policy in Afghanistan are steps Tehran has taken to open lines of dialogue with the Taliban. Iran and Afghanistan nearly went to war when the Taliban was in power in the 1990s, and relations have long been strained.

But members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which is tasked with brokering talks with the Taliban, say Iran recently began allowing Taliban representatives to operate openly in Tehran and Mashhad, an Iranian city close to the border with Afghanistan.

Arsallah Rahmani, a member of the council who was a deputy minister during the Taliban regime, said Taliban contacts have told him that Iran has courted the militant Islamist movement in an attempt to derail its exploratory talks with Washington.

“Iran will not let [the Taliban] join the peace process,” Rahmani said.

Iran has done little to publicize its overtures to the Taliban, but it invited a delegation from the group to a state-sponsored Islamic conference in Tehran in September.

“Bringing the Taliban to the Islamic Awakening conference took great courage and was a sign to the international community,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a member of the peace council.

He said Iran and the Taliban are being pragmatic because they have a common goal of ensuring that the Americans withdraw fully from Afghanistan.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Mujahid said. “Both sides are using this logic.”

Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said he could not confirm whether the group has dispatched envoys to Iran, but he noted that the Taliban wants constructive relationships with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. The Iranian Embassy in Kabul did not respond to requests for an interview.

U.S. diplomats and military officials in Kabul said they had no information about reports that Taliban representatives have an active presence in Iran. The United States has accused Iran of funding and arming certain Taliban commanders and playing a spoiler role in the war.

‘Iran is a cancer’

Iran has sought to keep a low profile in its efforts to influence policy in Afghanistan, though not always successfully. Karzai acknowledged in 2010 that presidential aides regularly received bags of cash from the Iranian government; he characterized the money as routine aid.

Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan lawmaker who chairs the defense committee in parliament, said Iran has spent millions of dollars expanding its influence in Afghanistan.

“Iran is a cancer,” she said. “It has affected all the Afghan government and nongovernmental bodies. They are everywhere: in the higher-education system, working with the media, working with civil society.”

Another lawmaker, Fauzia Kofi, said Iran has strengthened its influence over Afghan institutions in the past year. Key among those is parliament, which is expected to vote on the bilateral agreement with Washington.

“They have strong networks and a lot of money,” Kofi said in an interview. “They go to different parliamentarians and tell them what to do and what not to do. They have become more active to try to keep this [U.S.-
Afghan] partnership from happening.”

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.