Some locals jokingly call Herat the "Dubai of Afghanistan." The nickname is a stretch, but the mini-boom taking place in this commercial capital is borne out by 24-hour electricity and pothole-free streets where people wander without fear of the random violence that afflicts other urban centers in the country. Who gets the credit? Much of it goes to Iran, which lies less than a hundred miles to the west and is moving closer.
After completing a highway from its desert border, the Islamic Republic next door bankrolled an extension linking Herat city to Afghanistan's remote northern provinces. Later this year, a host of Iranian-built schools, clinics and industrial parks around the city will be connected to the Iranian interior thanks to an $80 million railroad spur currently under construction. Homayoun Azizi, the head of Herat's provincial council, says he's grateful for the "huge impact" Iran has had in accelerating economic growth in the region, "But," he asks, raising an eyebrow, "what are they doing beneath it all?" (See pictures from Afghanistan's dangerous Korengal Valley.)
While the Obama administration seeks to find common cause with Iran on Afghanistan and repair a broken bilateral relationship along the way, rumors persist about Iran's alleged efforts to sow trouble in the west. For several years, Afghan and U.S. officials have said Iranian-made weapons, including a signature variety roadside bomb used in Iraq, are being used by the Taliban-led insurgency that has intensified in the western provinces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in mid-2007 that "given the quantities that we're seeing, it is difficult to believe that it's associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it's taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government." (The Pentagon declined a follow-up inquiry) (Check out TIME's cover story on how to save Afghanistan.)
More recently, Afghan security forces found a cache of Iranian-made explosives near the Bakhshabad Dam in Farah province, a $2.2 million coalition-sponsored project set to boost power and water supply in the area. Gen. Malham Pohanyar, chief of the West Region border police, says other comparable findings abound. He says his men gave chase last week to arms smugglers who detonated their load as they fled in the dark.However, he concedes there is lack of hard proof implicating the Tehran regime.
Most analysts doubt direct Iranian involvement. There is speculation that rogue elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guard are to blame, the same way members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency are known to abet militants in the eastern borderlands. Others point out the arms might be smuggled in from third countries. But there is consensus that Tehran, despite its historical aversion to the Taliban, has shown a willingness to "interfere in Afghan affairs as leverage against the United States when threatened," says Haroun Mir, a security analyst in Kabul.
On more than one occasion, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has pledged reprisals against American "interests around the world" should Iran suffer a pre-emptive attack against its nuclear program. Iran has other levers at its disposal. After promising to stop deportations of Afghan refugees one million of whom still live in Iran Tehran has resumed sending waves back over by force. Shipments of school text books offensive to Afghanistan's majority Sunni Muslims have also started crossing the border from Shi'a Iran in greater number, according to Rafiq Shahir, head of the Herat Professionals' Council, who claims that mounting communal tensions could boil over because of Iranian influence. "We need to have good relations because we are neighbors, with deep economic and cultural ties," Shahir says, "but we are against Iranian politics here."
An Iranian official in Herat counters that a stable Afghanistan is in Iran's best interest. In 2006, Afghanistan received 4% of Iran's total exports, yielding more than $500 million in revenue. Stressing his government's commitment to a stable region, the official added that since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Tehran has sent Kabul millions in humanitarian aid more than $500 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Meanwhile, Iran has become the main entrepot for opium-based drugs produced in Afghanistan. The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime estimates it is home to 1.7 million opiate addicts, a burden that Iran and the West have a mutual incentive in combating. As part of the new tone from Washington, President Obama's Afghan strategy calls for a regional approach to secure Afghanistan, one that would be disadvantaged by Iranian non-participation. NATO partners are pushing for direct engagement with Tehran, possibly through a "contact group."
However, such overtures remain stunted by a deep and familiar mistrust. On Wednesday, Iran reportedly test-fired a new advanced missile with a range of about 1,200 miles, far enough to strike Israel, southeastern Europe and American bases in the Middle East. Obama, for his part, said he was ready to pursue tighter international sanctions.
For now, the Iranian consulate in Herat perhaps best embodies Tehran's posture in Afghanistan: monolithic walls of gray concrete are lined with a series of oversized flags in red, green and white, at once insular and proud. "Look at the way they try to stand out, even compared to the government ministries here," says Shir Agha Malikey, a Herat resident who fled to Iran during the Afghan civil war. "They are not trying to hide their strength."
Jason Motlagh's travel to Afghanistan and South Asia was funded by the non-profit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.