"We haven't chosen these neighbors," joked Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Said Tayeb Jawad, as he shined the red dot of a laser around the edges of a map of his homeland. He was addressing a roomful of government analysts, scholars and journalists Wednesday, and when asked about Iran's current influence in Afghanistan, the joking stopped. "Iran has become a more and more hostile power," he said.
Afghanistan is in a tough spot. The country is reliant on the U.S. and NATO for its security and, at the same time, shares its longest land border with Iran. Afghanistan has long pleaded with the U.S. and Iran not to carry out their longstanding strategic rivalry on its soil. And for several years that request has been largely honored. Iran, a long-time supporter of the Northern Alliance, was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the Taliban. Iran has also helped more than any other neighbor with the reconstruction of the country. Since 2002, Tehran has pumped millions of dollars into Afghanistan's western provinces to build roads, electrical grids, schools and health clinics. On top of this, Iranian agents are dumping bags of cash in the laps of tribal leaders in Afghanistan's west, a State Department official tells TIME, "clearly intended to purchase influence and remind them: The Americans may be here for 10 or 20 years, but we will be here forever."
In the past six months, however, Iran's actions have taken a more sinister turn. U.S. and NATO troops have intercepted shipments of Iranian-made arms in Afghanistan, including mortars, plastic explosives and explosively formed penetrators that have been used to deadly effect against armored vehicles in Iraq. U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood said on January 31, "There is no question that elements of insurgency have received weapons from Iran." The discovery of the first caches of Iranian-made weapons in Afghanistan in April, says a State Department official, "sent shock waves through the system." Iran was doing more than just bringing western Afghanistan into its sphere of influence.
Then, as if to remind the government of President Hamid Karzai just how much chaos its big neighbor to the west could create, Iran began deporting over 130,000 Afghan refugees back into Afghanistan, sparking a food and housing shortage just as the harsh winter months set in. After two decades of war, there are over 1 million Afghan refugees currently living in Iran. Afghanistan doesn't have the resources to reintegrate them in large numbers. After Karzai made a direct appeal to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran shut off the spigot. But it is unclear what price Iran might have extracted for its largesse. The repatriation, said the U.S. official, was "clearly designed to send a message to Afghans of displeasure of their relationship with the U.S."
Iran's recent actions have played right into the hands of the hawks in Washington looking to underscore Iran's malevolent intentions in the region. The conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute released a report Tuesday detailing Iran's increasing influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Iran, the report read, "is almost certainly providing some military support for the Taliban in Afghanistan."
All of this leaves Afghanistan caught in the middle. The country needs Iran's help developing its infrastructure in the eastern provinces and has a long-term interest in maintaining friendly relations, but Kabul knows it can't be at the cost of distancing itself from the U.S. and NATO. The last thing Karzai wants is to be forced into making a choice between Iran and the U.S. "Iran has played both a constructive and destructive role in Afghanistan," said ambassador Jawad. By playing it both ways, Iran is trying to back Kabul into a corner. That's not neighborly.