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 Iran seeking to draw western Afghanistan into its sphere of influence

The Associated Press

SHINDAND - Sitting in a grimy office at the end of a dank hallway, Police Chief Syed Ahmed Ansari tells of finding caches of explosives and hunting spies in his corner of western Afghanistan, far from the main haunts of Taliban rebels.

He says his biggest worry isn't the Taliban -- it's Iran.

"Iran is a dangerous neighbor. We know that terrorists are being trained in both Iran and in Pakistan, and we are in the middle," says Ansari, whose town is in a southeastern swath of Herat Province that borders Iran and Pakistan.

 Iran's foreign ministry has repeatedly rejected the accusations of interference in Afghanistan as "baseless."

But all along Afghanistan's sparsely peopled frontier with Iran, Afghan officials and Western diplomats say Tehran's hard-line Islamic regime is encouraging unrest in its neighbor while striving to increase its own influence.

They say Iranians are using cutthroat business practices to gain an edge in Afghan commerce, recruiting supporters among Afghanistan's Shiite Muslim minority and using popular TV serials to sway public opinion against Western allies, depicting them as anathema to Islamic traditions and tenets.

The Iranian push here and elsewhere in the region seeks to take advantage of the shifts in power and relationships that have followed the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- wars that left large numbers of American troops on both sides of anti-Western Iran.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai warns that interference from Iran and other neighbors is a dangerous game, saying an unstable Afghanistan will bring chaos to the region.

"The consequences will be that this region will suffer with us, equally, as we suffer. In the past we suffered alone. This time everybody will suffer with us," Karzai told The Associated Press in Kabul, the capital.

The 580-mile border that Afghanistan shares with Iran runs along three Afghan provinces. There are no big towns, and Afghan forces make few patrols, making it easy for people to sneak into the nearly empty region of scruffy plains, treeless hills and the foothills of the Bakharz mountains in the north.

Security is a major concern for Ansari. His town of sun-baked mud houses may have the look of centuries past, but Shindand plays a strategic role for the U.S.-led international coalition as home to Afghanistan's only major military air base aside from Bagram, near Kabul.

Yet his force has only 65 officers, two cars and no communications equipment to patrol an area the size of Manhattan Island that is roughly 240 miles from Iran.

In an interview with AP, Ansari said Afghan authorities had collected disturbing intelligence about Iranian activities in the frontier regions.

"From Iran they are bringing explosive material to Afghanistan. They don't want Afghanistan to be at peace because they are at war with the United States. One hundred percent, Iran is working against Afghanistan's safety," he said.

Ansari said the intelligence indicated Iran is sending in spies and trying to stir up opposition to Karzai's government.

"We conduct searches for explosive materials and we find stockpiles of weapons in areas around here, yet we don't have strong Taliban commanders from here, so where is this coming from? We know it is coming from Iran. But it is not an easy thing to stop," he said.

Some experts say it's not surprising Iran would try to gain influence in its neighbors. Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, sees Iran's regional policy as "mostly defensive."

"At one time, Iran sought the export of its revolution, but the failure of that policy has largely tempered such ambitions," Takeyh said.

Iran, a predominantly Shiite Muslim nation, welcomed the toppling of Afghanistan's largely Sunni Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. Tehran also was happy at the defeat of Saddam, a longtime enemy.

Yet those wars expanded the U.S. presence in the region, a trend opposed by Iran.

Some 19,000 U.S. soldiers buttress Karzai's government in Afghanistan, while 136,000 are in Iraq, joining the previous strong U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf. Washington's ties with Saudi Arabia are solid and there is now a U.S. alliance with Pakistan's military rulers.

Iran has built more security posts along the border with Afghanistan, and Afghan officials say it even has put up a fence that encroaches 200 meters (yards) inside Afghan territory.

But officials said Iranian activities go far beyond guarding against incursions.

Before leaving Afghanistan last year for his new post in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accused Iran of sending the Al Quds Division of its Revolutionary Guards across the border to incite unrest and cause trouble for Western troops.

A senior Afghan defense ministry official, who would not allow his name to be used because of the sensitivity of his country's relations with Iran, told AP in Kabul that recent intelligence revealed the Revolutionary Guards have camps along the border.

He also warned of a nexus of interests emerging between Iran, Russia, Taliban remnants and renegade Afghan militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, saying they all want to see Afghanistan destabilized.

"Russia is not happy with what is going on here, with the U.S. presence here. Russia wants Central Asia to be dependent on them and Iran wants Afghanistan as a buffer for them and as a place to make trouble for the United States," the official said.

Mohammed Zaman, acting manager of customs operations at Islam Kala, western Afghanistan's busiest border crossing with Iran, said the Tehran regime is infiltrating loyalists recruited among the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Iran, some since 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

"They have their own friends among the refugees and some of these refugees are now in the government," Zaman told AP in a chilly, makeshift office within sight of the border and Iran guards.

Graffiti scribbled on the wall of a housing complex for junior police officers 74 miles away in the provincial capital, Herat, attest to the support Iran has in western Afghanistan. The graffiti reads: "Long live Ahmedinejad," referring to Iran's hard-line President Mahmood Ahmedinejad elected last June.

Zaman also said both the Iranians and Americans are active in gathering intelligence along the frontier. When the topic turned to the U.S. activity, Zaman's voice dropped to a whisper. His information was sketchy, he said.

"The American soldiers come once or twice a week. They come and they search. We don't know what they are searching for or what they are looking for. They come in their own cars and do their searches without talking to us," Zaman said.

A news report last year said U.S. troops had slipped into Iran from Afghanistan to hunt for evidence of secret installations used in Tehran's suspect nuclear activities -- a program that has been put before the U.N. Security Council for consideration of whether Tehran is trying to build atomic weapons.

Since the ouster of the Taliban, Washington has sought to improve controls along the border by training Afghanistan's customs police and building a customs complex.

The effort has been largely unsuccessful because of corruption, said a Western diplomat, who insisted on speaking anonymously because he feared for his personal safety in a region where he said he is vulnerable to Afghan insurgents and Iranian agents.

His job in western Afghanistan is to keep an eye on Iranian activity, particularly in business.

"This is less sexy but vitally important because Iran is using predatory trade practices, subsidized input and smuggled goods to undercut Herat businesses," the envoy said. "What Iran is trying to do is colonize western Afghanistan by making sure they are not strong competitors able to build a strong, independent economy."

Al Haj Toryalai Ghawsi, an official at the Industrial Union in the provincial capital of Herat, agreed.

"Iran is overrunning our economy in western Afghanistan. Iran is looking at western Afghanistan to have influence throughout our economy. They worry because they look at Afghanistan and see Afghanistan as part of America, and to have control they want to control our economy," he said.

Abdul Ahad, a 50-year-old shopkeeper in Herat, also sees the Iranian encroachment. "Everything we have is from Iran. Look inside my shop, the biscuits, the tea, the sweets -- it is all from Iran," he said.

He said he worries about Iranian intentions, although he also is suspicious of the United States.

Others are more comfortable with Iran's influence.

"We are Muslims. I don't want the American kind of freedom," said Gul Ahmed, a 50-year-old laborer. "We have our religion and our culture. There is no difference between our culture and Iran's culture."

Just as the Tehran regime has been accused of using religious ties with Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority to undermine Iraqi unity, Iran allegedly relies on bonds with Afghanistan's Shiite minority -- about 30 percent of the population -- to work against Karzai's government

Mohakik Nasab, an Afghan Shiite cleric who studied in the Iranian holy city of Qom, found himself jailed and condemned to death when Afghanistan's Shiite clerics council charged him with insulting Islam. He was freed after three months and the death sentence was lifted.

He blamed Iranian pressure on the cleric council for his jailing, which came after Nasab argued in Women's Rights magazine that women are equal to men under Islam and that civil courts don't have the right to impose the death penalty on a Muslim who converts to another religion.

"But what really got me into trouble was that I wrote that Iran was interfering too much in Afghanistan among the Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan to make them answerable to Iran. They want to use Shiite Muslims here for their political purposes like in Lebanon against Israel," Nasab said.

"They are doing this in many ways. They give money. They train spies. You ask me what is my proof? I am in the community. I can see with my own eyes," he added.

Naseer Ahmed Raha, who heads a youth group dedicated to developing civil society in Herat, also sees Iranian machinations in Afghanistan.

"Iran never said it was against democracy in Afghanistan, but in these days Iran has promoted insecurity, has taken over our businesses, has encouraged mullahs in Afghanistan to talk for the benefit of Iran, mullahs to speak out against the American influence," he said.

In Kabul, Karzai told AP last month that interference by Afghanistan's neighbors has been the bane of his country's existence, but he is determined to fight efforts to play his country's ethnic groups against one another.

"We are bloody determined," Karzai said. "It is not going to be Pakistan playing the Pashtun, non-Pashtun game in Afghanistan. It is not going to be Iran playing this or that game, or any other country."

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