Kabul, Nov.14 (ANI): In Herat, the tie to Iran is hard to miss. Iranian money builds roads and industrial parks, store goods are likely to be from Iran, and Iranian cash buoys new mosques and opulent homes.
As talk turns to an eventual winding down of the nearly decade-long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Iran is at the forefront of neighbors' jockeying for power, with an eye to a new era.
That worries the Obama administration, which is already anxious about Iranian clout in Iraq, Washington's other war zone.
Many consider this close relationship between Iran and Herat a natural outgrowth of the deep-seated linguistic, cultural and family ties that span the desert frontier.
The province, after all, was at different times in history under Persian rule, and like neighboring Iran, is predominantly Shiite Muslim.
But others see a pattern of Iranian sway that extends far beyond the border regions, permeating the heart of Afghanistan's power structure.
The recent acknowledgement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that his office receives as much as two million dollars in annual payments from Tehran prompted the State Department to declare that it was "skeptical of Iran's motives" in Afghanistan.
But U.S. officials believe the bulging sacks of cash handed over to a top Karzai aide are only the tip of the iceberg.
Western diplomats and Afghan officials say far larger sums are routinely dispensed, directly and indirectly, to a range of Afghan groups and figures considered sympathetic to Tehran.
"Iran has influence in every sphere: economic, social, political and daily life," said Nazir Ahmad Haidar, the head of Herat's provincial council.
He adds: "When someone gives so much money, people fall into their way of thinking. It's not just a matter of being neighborly."
In Afghan political circles, overt criticism of Iran is often swiftly silenced.
Last month, the former governor of Nimruz province, Ghulam Dastgir Azaad, said he believed his public accusations that Iran smuggled weapons via his province had cost him his job. A week later, he disavowed the remarks.
Karzai, whose relations with the NATO alliance in general and the Obama administration in particular have notably deteriorated during the last two years, is not shy about using dealings with Iran to deliver an occasional sharp poke in the eye to the West.
Iran has a role to play in Afghanistan's tangled ethnic politics. Sizable national minorities such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks speak Dari, which is a variant of Iran's Farsi.
Iran has forged its closest ties with the Hazara ethnic group, who are Shiite Muslims, and its perceived favoritism toward them and other Shiites engenders some resentment.
For Western military powers, the central question is what role Iran plays in arming militant groups.
The consensus among Western intelligence officials is that although the Tehran government has aided the insurgency, it does not wish to see a restoration of rule by the Sunni Muslim Taliban.
Iran denies providing assistance to militant groups in Afghanistan, and denounces the Western military force as the chief instigator of violence. (ANI)