Friday, April 10, 2009

Tackling the Afghanistan-Pakistan Problem: Part 2 (Iran) by Olivier Guitta

Last week, Iran was invited to attend the international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague. This invitation was part of U.S. President Barack Obama plan to get Afghanistan's neighbors actively involved in being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. At that conference, Iran unsurprisingly criticized the occupation forces but said that it would help regarding the drug problem. The question remains: how much will Iran help?

After Pakistan and NATO, Iran is the most important player in Afghanistan. Iran has a long history with Afghanistan: Afghans settled in Iran hundreds of years ago. Today an estimated 2 million Afghans are believed to be living in the Islamic republic, but about 50 percent of them are illegal immigrants.

Iran had time and again threatened to deport the illegals, and this especially since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. At the end of 2006 Iran announced a massive deportation of illegal Afghan workers. The idea behind it was to help Iranian workers by heavily fining employers who did not favor Iranian workers.

But some analysts have pointed out that the economic problems are just a populist smokescreen and that almost every illegal immigrant is a man living without his family and without any social protection. Afghans represent an inexpensive source of labor.

A possible factor behind Iran's continued threats to throw out the Afghan workers is because it gives them an additional card to throw down on the table if and when the time comes. Tehran has been blowing hot and cold on this issue. From April 2007 to Jan. 2008 Iran deported some 360,000 illegals. Iran realizes Kabul's vulnerability given its shaky economy. This allows them to pressure the Afghans.

Afghanistan's rural areas are already overpopulated and with high unemployment. The sudden return of tens of thousands of refugees would cause havoc to the Afghan economy.

From the beginning of 2009 Iran started again deporting Afghan refugees despite pledges not to do so. Said Afghanistan's Refugee Affairs Ministry spokesman Shams-u-Din Hamid, "As in the past, every time the Islamic Republic of Iran has made a pledge [not to deport Afghans], they have violated this pledge and broken their promises."

Another important aspect of Tehran's interest in the Afghan issue is western Afghanistan. In fact it is a strategic zone for Shiite influence and Heart city there is home to 180,000 Shiites (18 percent of the total population) who speak the same language and practice the same religion than as in Iran.

Tehran also always posed as a natural protector of the Hazara a predominantly Shiite minority. Iran has allies such as the Shiite governor and the Afghan Shiite religious authorities, trained in Iran. The population in the area watch Iranian TV channels which stigmatize the presence of the U.S. forces on Afghan soil.

Furthermore, Iran is Afghanistan's main trading partner. In 2006 Iran accounted for more than 30 percent of direct investments in the province, in particular in industry, construction and textile.

Local sources indicate that Iranian Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, are present in Herat. They have been mobilized by Ahmadinejad to be the eyes and ears of the Iranian regime, monitoring NATO troops.

The most disconcerting aspect of Iran's involvement in Afghanistan is its alliance with the Taliban. While it is true that Iran and the Taliban are mortal enemies, Iran has been using the Taliban to fight a proxy war against NATO.

NATO officials told ABC News in 2007 that they had caught Iran red-handed, shipping heavy arms, C4 explosives and advanced roadside bombs to the Taliban for use against NATO forces. British special forces found evidence in Oct. 2007 and Jun. 2008 of Iran's supplying the Taliban with the same bomb-making equipment it provided the insurgents in Iraq.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai confirmed: "Weapons of Iranian origin have turned up in Afghanistan in significant numbers."

Finally, recently U.S. Gen. David Petraeus stated that Iran is helping the Taliban in Afghanistan. Also, according to the French daily Le Figaro, Iran is not only supplying weapons and ammunition, but has set up three training camps for Taliban fighters inside Iran.

One area that Iran will help in Afghanistan is indeed the drug issue; the reason being that it represents a great danger to Iran's national security. About 3,700 Iranian security officials were killed between 1989 and 2003 in clashes with drug traffickers. Also total drug seizures increased from 155 tons in 2001 to 618 tons in 2007, most of it coming from Afghanistan. There are close to 4 million drug addicts in Iran and according to a recent official study at least 15 percent of nine- to 25-year-olds are using hard drugs in Iran.

Iran's role in the region complicates the security situation at a time when the Afghan theater has become the central front on the war against radical Islam. Being the shrewd negotiators that they are, Iranians will most certainly use the drug issue as well as the refugees to try and push for greater concessions from the West.

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