By Anthony Palermo —
“The government of Iran has been assisting us with five or six or seven hundred thousand euros once or twice every year, that is an official aid.” -Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Recently, Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted receiving money from Iran. While the struggling Afghan government is hard-pressed to reject assistance from its neighbors, White House spokesman Bill Burton expressed concern about Iranian intentions in the country. Burton stressed Iran’s “responsibility” to have a “positive influence on the formation of a government there, and to ensure that Afghanistan is not a country where terrorists can find safe harbor.”
Perhaps as troubling as the expanding Iranian influence is President Karzai’s reaction to these revelations. Arguing that the process is both transparent and legitimate, Karzai went so far as to say “We are grateful for the Iranian help in this regard. The United States is doing the same thing. They are [also] providing cash to some of our offices.” By likening Iran’s actions to those of the United States when responding to Burton’s concern, President Karzai is sending a strong message. By invoking U.S. efforts when defending the interaction with Iran, President Karzai ensures that the United States recognizes that one of its main rivals is competing for influence in Afghanistan. While this could give Karzai more bargaining power when he disagrees with the United States, he should be wary of the Iranian government. The short-term leverage and quasi-autonomy could come with long-term costs.
President Karzai should not assume that Iran is doing the same thing as the United States outside of the limited confines of the Afghan presidential offices. According to purported U.S. military reports released through Wikileaks, Iran does not share the U.S. goal of a stable government capable of eliminating terrorist strongholds. The U.S. intelligence made available by Wikileaks indicates that Iran has provided weapons and training to both Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, as well as various tribal warlords. Though President Karzai may have some interest in cooperating across his border, he must be cognizant of the limits of the shared interests between Iran and Afghanistan.
Iran’s actions express a fear of a rival power next-door under American sway. While a completely inept Karzai may create a power vacuum and struggle which could damage Iran, Iran also fears an effective Karzai government that acts as a proxy for U.S. interests. By spreading fungible, financial power among divergent interests in Afghanistan, Iran hopes to render Afghanistan suitably crippled. Iran has sought to undercut American influence by providing an alternative source of funding for Karzai. Simultaneously, Iran is aiding opponents of the central government to prevent its consolidation of power. This ensures that American and Afghan resources must be used to combat persistent threats while creating friction between the United States and Afghanistan. These effects can compound to leave a weak Karzai relying on Iran to survive. This dramatic shift in power, from D.C. to Tehran, seems possible if Karzai unwittingly thinks the United States and Iran are “doing the same thing.”
Image courtesy of BBC