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Iran-Afghan Ties Have Wide-Ranging Implications

Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai has described his talks with Iranian officials in Tehran earlier this week as useful and fruitful. The renewal of bilateral ties between the previously hostile neighbors has wide-ranging implications for both sides.

Iran and Afghanistan may share a long common border but their relationship during the Taleban rule in Kabul was mostly hostile.

Iran's Shiite Muslim leaders had little sympathy for the Sunni Taleban rulers next door. The two countries nearly went to war several years ago.

With the fall of the Taleban regime, both sides see potential advantages in renewing diplomatic and economic ties. They also see potential dangers if they do not.

Political analyst Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy outlines some short-term benefits for Afghanistan. "Iran could play a major role in helping the Karzai government with the reconstruction of the education systems for instance, by providing Persian speaking teachers with the reconstruction of medical systems, by providing easy access to world markets through Iran, which is very close to Western Afghanistan," he said. "So there are many things Iran can provide in a positive sense. And on the other hand, there are many problems that Iran could cause for Mr. Karzai if, for instance, Iran were to decide to provide arms or political support to encourage Ismail Khan in Herat or other Afghan warlords to basically ignore the Karzai government."

At the same time, Mr. Clawson says Iran will also benefit from better relations. "The relationship with Afghanistan is important to Iran because Afghanistan has been a source of so much of the drug problem that ravishes Iranian society and because there are hundreds of thousands, if not over a million Afghans living in Iran," he said. "They provide much of the labor in the construction industry and basic services. What these people do can have a major impact on Iran's economy and society."

But the U.S. role in Afghanistan is a major worry for Iran.

Military analyst Amin Tarzi of the Monterrey Institute of International Studies says conservative factions within the Iranian government fear an American plan to encircle the Islamic Revolutionary regime that U.S. President George Bush has labeled part of an axis of evil.

"U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf and maybe an impending action in Iraq, U.S. presence in Turkey and Azerbaijan's closeness to the U.S. and now the presence in Afghanistan and now even in Pakistan in a permanent or semi-permanent basis, that basically encircles Iran and that is not a good prospect for them," he said.

Professor Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University says Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has to walk a fine line in his diplomatic efforts. His opening to Tehran could be viewed in part as an effort to establish his independence and avoid appearing an American puppet.

"To the extent that the United States views Iran as an implacable enemy and to the extent the United States believes it's been unhelpful in Afghanistan, to the extent that the slogan is Iran is part of the evil axis, that presents some real challenges for the Afghan leadership in terms of dealing with Iran," he said.

Mr. Brumberg adds that Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami could use the prospect of playing a role in Afghanistan's reconstruction to bolster his own position in the battle with conservative hardliners for power inside Iran.

"What we see now with the Karzai visit to Tehran is an effort by Khatami and the reformists to somehow capture back some of the agenda and reassert their influence without necessarily provoking the hard-liners," he said.

Still, analyst Patrick Clawson says that could all backfire if Iran's hard-line clerical leadership feels threatened by Afghanistan's development. "It's quite threatening to Iran's hard-liners if the Iranian people see an unpopular clerical regime in a neighboring state replaced by a relatively democratic, relatively open, relatively popular regime supported by the United States," he said.

Mr. Clawson adds that the cloud of suspicion hanging over Iran in the West could actually work in Mr. Karzai's favor. By highlighting the potential threat of Iran, he says, Mr. Karzai can better persuade Western governments to provide more aid more quickly for Afghanistan's reconstruction.