Call it a case of dueling consulates.
Almost every morning, crowds of visa-seekers flock to the sprawling Iranian diplomatic mission here, a prime center of gravity in this western Afghan city with deep Persian roots. Now, a new U.S. Consulate is poised to open as well, staking out a commanding hillside position in a landmark building that was once a luxury hotel.
Diplomats being diplomats, neither the U.S. nor the Iranian side acknowledges any rivalry, or any wish to keep tabs on the other’s activities. But in Herat, an hour’s drive from the Iranian border, Tehran’s growing bid for influence is on clear display.
As talk turns to an eventual winding down of the nearly decadelong U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Iran is at the forefront of neighbors’ jockeying for power, with an eye to a new era.
That worries an administration already anxious about Iranian clout in Iraq, Washington’s other war zone. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in Iraq before taking up the Afghan command, has accused the Tehran government of providing at least some assistance to the Taliban, even though Iran supported the Afghan militia that helped drive the Taliban from power in 2001.
The recent acknowledgement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that his office receives as much as $2 million in annual payments from Tehran prompted the State Department to declare that it was “skeptical of Iran’s motives” in Afghanistan. But U.S. officials believe the bulging sacks of cash handed over to a top Karzai aide are only the tip of the iceberg.
Western diplomats and Afghan officials say far larger sums are routinely dispensed, directly and indirectly, to a range of Afghan groups and figures considered sympathetic to Tehran. In Herat, the name of both the city and the province surrounding it, the special relationship with Iran is hard to miss.
Iranian money builds roads and industrial parks; store-bought goods from soup to nuts are most likely to have Iranian provenance; and waves of Iranian cash buoy sparkling new mosques and opulent homes.
Iranian power even takes the most literal form: Tehran helped build and pay for Herat’s electrical grid.
Many consider this close relationship a natural outgrowth of the deep-seated linguistic, cultural and family ties that span the desert frontier. The province, after all, was at different times in history under Persian rule, and like neighboring Iran, is predominantly Shiite Muslim.
But others see a pattern of Iranian sway that extends far beyond the border regions, permeating the heart of Afghanistan’s power structure.
“Iran has influence in every sphere: economic, social, political and daily life,” said Nazir Ahmad Haidar, the head of Herat’s provincial council. “When someone gives so much money, people fall into their way of thinking. It’s not just a matter of being neighborly.”
Amid an ongoing brawl over the results of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections nearly two months ago, some candidates say that Iranian wishes are shaping the outcome of key races, as well as dictating the allocation of governorships and important ministry jobs.
In Afghan political circles, overt criticism of Iran is often swiftly silenced. Last month, the former governor of Nimruz province, Ghulam Dastgir Azaad, said he believed his public accusations that Iran smuggled weapons via his province had cost him his job. A week later, he disavowed the remarks.
Karzai, whose relations with the NATO alliance in general and the Obama administration in particular have notably deteriorated during the last two years, is not shy about using dealings with Iran to deliver an occasional sharp poke in the eye to the West.
In March, under American pressure over corruption in his government, the Afghan leader invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a visit that essentially coincided with one by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. At a joint news conference with the Iranian president, Karzai stood by placidly as Ahmadinejad delivered a blistering anti-American tirade.
Iran has a role to play in Afghanistan’s tangled ethnic politics. Sizable national minorities such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks speak Dari, which is a variant of Iran’s Farsi. But Iran has forged its closest ties with the Hazara ethnic group, who are Shiite Muslims, and its perceived favoritism toward them and other Shiites engenders some resentment.
“Sometimes people accuse you of working for Iran,” said Shahnaz Hemmati, a Shiite member of parliament from Herat who appears to have won reelection, according to preliminary results. “If Iran wants influence, it doesn’t come through Shia leaders. I want an independent Afghanistan.”
Sectarian tensions can sometimes be seen in Herat, where one of the most academically rigorous high schools has ample funding from across the border, with scholarships on offer for top students to study at Iranian universities. Most of the student body is Shiite.
“We have an Afghan curriculum, 100%,” said principal Mohammed Akhbari Razavi, who took up his post after retiring from Iran’s Education Ministry. “There is no political motivation here.”
For Western military powers, the central question is what role Iran plays in arming militant groups. The consensus among Western intelligence officials is that although the Tehran government has aided the insurgency, it does not wish to see a restoration of rule by the Sunni Muslim Taliban.
Iran denies providing assistance to militant groups in Afghanistan, and denounces the Western military force as the chief instigator of violence.
Local insurgent groups, perhaps as much as overarching movements such as the Taliban, are viewed as a means of gaining influence.
Iran is thought to have supported Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a former Herat mayor who went over to the insurgency, terrorizing the city for several years before he was killed by coalition forces last year. Now, the remnants of his group, led by his son, are thought to be coalescing again.
Iranians with ties to Afghanistan say they have no interest in a resurgence of the Taliban, or for that matter in fomenting unrest on their own doorstep.
“Peace for Afghanistan is peace for us,” said Ali Khaksar, an Iranian businessman who was in Herat recently to organize exhibitions of Iranian goods and services. “We don’t want to destabilize our neighbor. That would be bad for us, and bad for business!”
But Haidar, the provincial council head, is suspicious of everyone’s motives in his country.
“It’s not only Iran, it is all our neighbors, and the West as well,” Haidar said. “Everyone wants to use Afghanistan to further their own aims.”
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.