Iran’s hard and soft power in Afghanistan

DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta thanks troops from the 172nd Infantry Brigade on Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan, for helping to reach a turning point in the conflict, Dec. 14, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Iran has accelerated its hard power and soft power efforts to drive the US out of Afghanistan.

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  • Iran’s weapons/financial aid to the Taliban make headlines, but Tehran’s soft power efforts in Afghanistan are overlooked.

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  • Iran spends $100 million/year in Afghanistan on funding media, religious and cultural organizations.

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Editor's Note: FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch provides translated selections and analysis from a diverse range of foreign articles and other media that analysts and expert contributors believe will give military and security experts an added dimension to their critical thinking about the Operational Environment.

Sources: “Dar pai efsha saazi 8 Sobh, modakhela rasaana-yi Iran barasee meshawad” [After disclosure by Hasht-e Sobh, Iran’s media interference is being investigated], 14 August 2012

On 3 August Iran’s embassy in Kabul hosted an iftaar dinner for a group of Afghan media officials to discuss establishing a “union of journalists” to coordinate the work of pro-Iran media in Afghanistan. According to a report in the daily Hasht-e Sobh, representatives from major Afghan broadcast and print outlets attended the meeting, including Tamaddon (Civilization) TV, Noor (Light) TV, Ayna (Mirror) TV, Insaaf [Justice] (a daily newspaper), and Roshd [Progress] (a daily newspaper). Iranian cultural attaché Naser Jahan-Shahi chaired the meeting and pledged that the embassy would cover the expenses for the project.

The meeting selected Hussein Rezvani Bamyani, Director of the Cultural Committee of Afghanistan’s Shia Ulema [Scholar] Council, as the head of the union. Jawad Mohseni, director of Tamaddon TV, and Zakaria Rahel, a prominent journalist, were appointed the first and second deputies respectively. Bamyani has close ties with the Iranian clerical establishment in Qom and promotes the teachings of Iranian revolutionary leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Afghanistan. He has organized several anti-West and anti-Israel protest rallies in Kabul over the past years.

"Over the past decade Iran has played a two-faced game in Afghanistan." -Ahmad K. MajidyarThe leaked information alarmed many Afghans. Lawmakers and civil society activists condemned the initiative as
overt interference in Afghan affairs. Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament has tasked the country’s intelligence agency to investigate the issue. As the U.S. and NATO are winding down the war in Afghanistan, Iran has launched an aggressive campaign of hard power and soft power to speed up the withdrawal of foreign troops and maximize its influence in Afghanistan.

While Iran’s weapons and financial aid to the Taliban often make headlines, Tehran’s soft power efforts in Afghanistan at the expense of U.S. interests are largely overlooked. According to Davood Moradian, former senior policy advisor at Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, Iran spends $100 million a year in Afghanistan on funding media, religious and cultural organizations. Quoting Afghan officials, a report in Reuters in May said Iran funded about one-third of Afghanistan’s media, either financially or by providing content and direction.

As the article in Hasht-e Sobh points out, Iran through funding media aims to incite anti- American sentiments and strain ties between Afghanistan and the United States. As Kabul and Washington worked on drafting a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) earlier this year, Iran waged a multilayered campaign to derail the pact. It tried to bribe Afghan lawmakers to reject the deal, and pro-Iran media outlets depicted the agreement as a U.S. tool to occupy Afghanistan. Despite all Iranian efforts, the Afghan parliament approved the pact.

Over the past decade Iran has played a two-faced game in Afghanistan. Tehran has fostered close ties to Kabul, aided Afghanistan’s rebuilding, and invested in the country’s industry and mining. Trade between Iran and Afghanistan increased from $800 million in 2008 to $2 billion last year. Conversely, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have provided weapons and money to the Taliban, fueled sectarian tension between the Sunnis and Shias, bribed Afghan politicians to influence policy in Kabul, and funded religious and media organizations to advance its own agenda.

Iran’s short-term and long-term objectives in Afghanistan appear to contradict one another. In the long term, Iran favors a stable, multiethnic, and friendly Afghanistan. Iran is politically and ideologically opposed to the Taliban and sees the extremist Sunni group as an instrument of its regional rivals Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. At present, however, due to perceived threats of a military action against its nuclear facilities, Iran sees the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as a bigger threat. It, therefore, has accelerated its hard power and soft power efforts to drive the United States out of Afghanistan.

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