As the United States winds down its military involvement in Afghanistan, neighboring Iran is expanding its influence in the country through development and direct financial assistance to individuals and families.
Iran is taking advantage of historic and religious ties with Afghanistan to funnel aid through an organization known as the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee that operates around the world, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Unlike American aid that often works through contractors and whose origins are not known, Iranian aid is more direct. It has helped build houses, clinics, a library and a school. It has provided monthly food stipends and even money for a wedding.
In many ways Iran is winning the hearts and minds of Afghans. As human beings we will receive aid from whoever provides it. America is absent, said one Afghan man. The Iranians are doing more than the Americans. Iran is in all of our lives, said another.
Iran is also using the aid to build an intelligence network relying on information it gathers from aid recipients. And it is fueling insurgent activity in Herat province. Tehran is funding some media to promote Iranian views and propaganda.
One Afghan official said of Irans influence, This is even more dangerous than the suicide bombers coming from Pakistan. At least you can see them and fight them. But you cant as easily see and fight Irans political and cultural influence.
However, Iran could also use its position in Afghanistan to retaliate against U.S. interests there should the Obama administration take military action against Irans nuclear sites. Iranian aid falls well short of the billions of dollars America has spent to help Afghanistan these 11 years, but Iranian influence could one day rival U.S. interests.