Iran's Afghan Ambitions

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This week’s Afghan-themed summit in Tehran served as a strong indication of the growing prominence held by Iran’s eastern neighbors. The trilateral summit – hosted on May 24 by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – was attended by both the Afghan and Pakistani presidents in order to develop a joint strategy on regional crises like terrorism and drug trafficking.

But another reason for Iran’s reappraised Afghan policy is Tehran's strategic desire to improve its bargaining position with the United States. The Iranian leadership knows that events in Afghanistan could have major impact on Barack Obama's standing in the international community, as well as his position at home. The thinking in Tehran is that the more influence Iran can have on events in Afghanistan, the more powerful its negotiation position will be with Washington.

To achieve this goal Tehran is applying a lighter version of its multi-pronged strategy in Iraq. Just as it did there, helping the reconstruction of Afghanistan makes up an important part of Iran's regional strategy. $500 million in Iranian aid has been spent in the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This money has been invested in numerous projects such as railroad construction, highway development, schools, clinics and industrial parks around the country, with special focus placed on both Persian and Shiite speaking areas.

Reconstruction projects provide one important bit of leverage, while having a say in the region’s level of violence provides another. This is why Iran, through its allies, or what some people believe to be rogue elements of the Revolutionary Guards, has been supplying explosives to the Taliban. Some of the shipments have successfully made it through to the insurgents. Others have been confiscated. According to the Washington Post, a shipment of armor piercing bombs destined for the Taliban from Iran was caught in September 2007. Such shipments have continued over time, and according to a recent report in TIME magazine, Iranian-made explosives were discovered near the Bakhshabad Dam in Farah province, a $2.2 million coalition-sponsored project set to boost power and water supply in the area.

The Afghan government has on more than one occasion accused Tehran of causing instability on its soil. However, the very fact that its president is attending the summit is a sign that Iran's influence cannot be ignored. In fact, owing to Iran's increasing clout in the region, stronger ties with Tehran can also be used by both the Afghan and Pakistani governments as a tool to improve their own positions. This is especially true when it comes to playing balance of power politics between their international and domestic rivals.

This can be witnessed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's desire to use the summit in order to improve his government's domestic standing. Ethnicity is an important factor in domestic Afghani politics. The country's Persian speaking Tajik tribes and its Shiite groups based in the center of the country are believed to have close contacts with Tehran. With the Afghan presidential election scheduled for August 20, improving his relations with Tehran could possibly aid Karzai's reelection chances.

The same goes for Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari. He is often accused of being too close to the US by conservative and religious elements at home. He has also faced increased pressure from the United States in recent weeks and months. Since 2002, America has supplied Pakistan with $5.4bn in assistance to fight the Taliban. However, judging by the progress made by Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Pakistan, this money has not been spent all that effectively. In fact, according to one recent report, Western officials suspect that 50% of the allocated money has “disappeared.” It’s believed that corrupt Pakistani officials have used part of this money for their own projects and personal wealth. This has significantly increased the level of criticism from Washington.

By improving his relations with Tehran, Zardari hopes to show Obama that he too can play Washington off its Iranian rival. More and more voices in the US believe that Zardari's rival Nawaz Sharif should be granted greater influence in Islamabad. The intention is to use this as a tool, in order to pressure the Pakistani president to cooperate more in the war against the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Arab world - especially Saudi Arabia - will be watching the summit with concern. For years, Riyadh has labored to be the most powerful Middle Eastern player in Pakistani foreign policy. The Saudis, assumes Zardari, will pay a king’s ransom to keep Islamabad away from Iran’s sphere of influence. If that fails, stronger ties with Tehran may provide Pakistan with the ability to abandon Riyadh entirely.

The Tehran summit is yet another testament to the usefulness and impact of Iran's soft power strategy. However, soft power and support for militants requires economic viability. President Ahmadinejad has proven to be a disaster for the Iranian economy, and if reelected, the risk remains that Iran may not be able to continue with its costly regional ambitions.

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