In a move hailed as a significant show of support for Afghanistan's interim government, Iran has curbed renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's activities. At the same time, conservative Islamic elements in Iran are engaged on an on-going effort to enhance Tehran's influence over Afghanistan's reconstruction.
Iranian authorities have ordered the closure of Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami party offices throughout Iran, and have publicly threatened to deport him. Tehran has also warned Hekmatyar not to engage in political activities designed to destabilize Hamid Karzai's interim government. In clamping down on Hekmatyar, Iran acted to fulfill a pledge to in the stabilization of Afghanistan.
Hekmatyar and his loyalists found refuge in Iran after the Taliban conquered most of Afghanistan in 1996. In recent months, he has been openly critical of the Karzai's provisional leadership, and has reportedly sought to join forces with exiled Taliban leaders, who have regrouped in Pakistan as the Khudamul Farqan Jamiat party.
Despite Iran's goodwill gesture concerning Hekmatyar, some Western analysts caution that Iran is pressing to exert influence over Afghanistan's development. Tehran's religious establishment is reportedly worried about the possibility of a western-leaning Afghanistan on its borders, a situation that would leave Iran sandwiched between a regional ally of the United States and an Iraqi regime that is still viewed as a threat.
In place of Hekmatyar, Tehran has actively been cultivating new Afghan proxies. In the northwestern city of Herat, governor Ismail Khan is being courted by conservative Iranian elements as a potential ally. Iran has been sending truckloads of goods into the five provinces under Khan's control, providing him with lucrative trade and customs duties. As a result, Khan's loyalty to the interim government has been questioned. Khan moved to squelch such speculation February 7 with a public declaration of support for Karzai's leadership. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Nevertheless, evidence of Iranian influence is prevalent in areas under Khan's control. Iran has provided Khan's soldiers and law-enforcement officials with weapons and uniforms, and special squads of Afghan fighters trained by Iran are patrolling the streets in Iranian jeeps.
Similarly, conservative elements in Iran have funneled money and arms to the mercurial General Rashid Dostum, who controls the strategic northern areas around Mazar-i-Sharif. Several senior Afghan officials concede that Dostum is receiving "as much as he needs" for his military.
Though Dostum is ostensibly a deputy defense minister in the interim government, he has not returned to Kabul since Hamid Karzai's inauguration and plays no role in the interim government. Dostum reportedly has used Iranian support to expand his personal influence. His militia has been involved in several skirmishes with other regional commanders.
In circumventing Kabul and developing independent relationships with Khan and Dostum, Iran is fomenting the factionalism that has plagued Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal. By wooing regional warlords with weapons and hard currency, Iran is undermining the interim government's political authority while simultaneously giving warlords the military and economic means to maintain their fiefdoms against Kabul's efforts to extend centralized authority in Afghanistan.
The reality of Iranian support means that Kabul may not have the political capital or the military strength to rein in Dostum and Khan and solidify control over the country. Karzai may subsequently be tempted to seek the help of the US forces to bring the recalcitrant warlords into line.
While such operations could conceivably be done covertly, or be characterized as an anti-terrorism operation, reliance on the foreign military presence in Afghanistan could damage the interim government's credibility. Utilizing US or other foreign troops against Dostum's and Khan's forces could end up lending credence to Iranian conservatives' interventionist logic and invite more destabilizing practices from Tehran's clerics.
Artie McConnell is a Central Asian affairs analyst currently based in Moscow.