In 1991, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, the rump regime of Mohammad Najibullah finally cut a deal with Iran. The Iranians were allowed to supply the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan with armaments and other goods through direct flights to Bamiyan in exchange for supplying petroleum to western Afghanistan, including to the Kabul regime’s military forces. The arrangement provided Tehran with unfettered access to an area which since 1981 was increasingly under its patronage. The Iranians hoped that they would be able to use this access to strengthen their proxies (i.e. Hezb-i Wahdat) in the conflict against Saudi backed Sunni groups (see Rubin 1995, p. 264). Throughout the tumultuous period that followed, Iran continued to expand its influence in western and central Afghanistan.

The deal highlighted the dependency of the Kabul regime on Tehran for petroleum and Iran’s stake in the character of the government in Afghanistan. Twenty years later, Iran is again flexing its muscles in Afghanistan through petroleum politics. Iran’s decision to block (at least) 700 Afghan owned fuel trucks from transiting to western Afghanistan has resulted in a major spike in fuel prices just as winter sets in.  Fuel prices in Herat are at an eight year high. Afghanistan has witnessed several protests directed against Iran in recent days.

Why is Iran doing this now?

Professor Juan Cole argues that Iran’s decision is a response to the US led sanctions regime imposed through the United Nations. Through Iran’s chairmanship of OPEC and its supply links to western Afghanistan, Iran can directly punish the Americans and reap a windfall profit. Iran will not allow OPEC to meet to revise production quotas which might ease the current price of petroleum. By halting fuel supplies to western Afghanistan through a virtual blockade, Afghanistan will have to rely primarily on a supply route through Pakistan which is vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Some supplies could also come through Uzbekistan, but Iranian officials have apparently also limited shipment through that route according to Afghan traders. Iran assumes that this will further impair the American occupation. And while ordinary Afghans will also suffer, Iran does not appear to be intentionally targeting the civilian population (although there are some speculative arguments that Iran is unhappy that the TAPI pipeline was not also routed through its territory). As Cole points out the Iranian strategy is brilliant: American consumers will compensate Iran for the sanctions regime and Iran will have the added bonus of making life difficult for the US in Afghanistan.

The only problem with the strategy is that if Iran persists in blocking fuel supplies, it will lose influence within Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that it will seek to cut trade ties with Iran if the fuel trucks are not allowed to enter Afghanistan. Afghans argue that by international law, since much of the fuel was apparently purchased in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, the Iranians do not have the right to stop the flow of these goods particularly as they do not constitute a direct threat to Iran’s security. However, Afghanistan remains reliant on the goodwill of its neighbors to keep supply routes open.  Afghanistan is again caught in the struggle between foreign powers and ordinary Afghans will bear the brunt of the suffering.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]