(Refiles to change last sub-head)
* Iran seeking influence through Afghan media
* Part of Tehran's projection of "soft power"
* US-Afghan pact latest flashpoint with Iran
* Fears NATO withdrawal may lead to civil war
By Amie Ferris-Rotman
KABUL, May 24 With most foreign combat troops
set to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, Iran is is using the
media in the war-ravaged nation to gain influence, a worrying
issue for Washington.
Nearly a third of Afghanistan's media is backed by Iran,
either financially or through providing content, Afghan
officials and media groups say.
"What Iran wants, what they are striving at, is a power base
in Afghanistan that can counter American influence," said a
senior government official, who like others for this report,
spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"They are without a doubt doing this through supporting and
funding our media."
Iran spends $100 million a year in Afghanistan, much of it
on the media, civil society projects and religious schools, says
Daud Moradian, a former foreign ministry advisor who now teaches
at the American University in Kabul.
"It is using Afghanistan to send a message to America that
it can't be messed with. Afghanistan becomes a managed
battlefield as a result."
Officials in Tehran could not be reached for comment despite
repeated attempts and the Iranian embassy in Kabul said it was
not prepared to talk about the issues raised in this report.
Strategic partnership agreement
NATO troops in Afghanistan link.reuters.com/qum38s
NEW STRATEGIC PACT
The landmark agreement NATO leaders sealed this week in
Chicago, handing control of Afghanistan over to its own security
forces by the middle of next year, puts the Western alliance on
an "irreversible" path out of the unpopular, decade-long war.
Some security analysts say the withdrawal could lead to
increasing instability and then to civil war -- and an
opportunity for Iran and others to move into the resulting power
When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989
following a decade-long occupation and the pro-Moscow government
in Kabul collapsed, Afghanistan's neighbours moved in to arm and
fund proxies to gain regional influence as the country plunged
into civil war.
Although Kabul's ties with Tehran have seen sporadic
improvement after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, which had
emerged triumphant after the civil war, the relationship is
The latest flashpoint is the recent signing of a long-term
strategic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan.
Though vague on details, the pact was meant to signal U.S.
financial and security commitments to Afghanistan through 2024 -
particularly for funding the large Afghan National Army.
Iran, whose frayed ties with the United States have worsened
over its disputed nuclear programme, sees the pact as a threat.
Iranian-backed media in Afghanistan responded by churning out
reports critical of the agreement, and Tehran's ambassador to
Afghanistan Abu Fazel Zohrawand threatened to expel Iran's one
million Afghan refugees if the pact was not rejected.
IRAN'S TALKING HEADS
Afghanistan's intelligence department, the National
Directorate of Security (NDS), had earlier gone public with
Iran's alleged meddling in the media, saying that weekly
newspaper Ensaf and TV channels Tamadon and Noor had received
financial support from Iran.
A journalist who recently left Tamadon TV, owned by
Afghanistan's most prominent Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Mohammed
Asef Mohseni, told Reuters that while the station never
confirmed it was getting support from Tehran "it was obvious".
"My salary of $600 a month would fluctuate dramatically, as
it was pegged to Iran's rial," said the 23-year-old, one of 200
employees at Tamadon, where he worked for four years before
resigning over fears his employment would land him in trouble
with Afghan authorities.
"Our office is full of posters calling for protests against
the strategic pact with America. We'd invite pro-Iran analysts
onto our shows saying Iran was the only one who could help
Afghanistan with food and supplies," said the recent graduate,
dressed in a tight black long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans.
Tamadon TV dismissed the claims of Iranian backing as an
"insult". Editor in chief Mohammad Rahmati said the station was
targeted "because we show core Islamic values; we don't show
half-naked dancing women".
Afghanistan has been so much a focus of big power rivalry
over the past 200 years -- a failed British occupation in the
mid-19th century, the failed Russian one in the 1980s, for
example -- it has its own historical sobriquet, "The Great
As the United States prepares for its own dispirited
withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is worried about Iran gaining a
strategic advantage in Afghanistan, after seeing Tehran win
influence in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
More than half of the 171 TV, satellite channels and radio
stations licensed to broadcast in Iraq today are funded by Iran,
with others backed by the United States and Arabic Gulf
countries, government communications officials say.
Iran's media strategy is but one strand in a multi-pronged
projection of "soft power" into Afghanistan. The two countries
share cultural, language and historical links -- for centuries
they were part of the ancient Persian empire -- as well as a
long and porous border.
Iran said in 2010 it has provided some $500 million in
official assistance for reconstruction projects. Tehran has
built religious schools for Afghan Shi'ites, who comprise a
fifth of Sunni-majority Afghanistan's 30 million people.
Iran may even have MPs on its payroll. An Afghan official
who declined to be identified told Reuters that up to 44 of the
249 members of the Afghan parliament are suspected of receiving
money from Iran. Iran has not responded to those allegations,
which have also been aired in the Afghan media.
Iran's vehement opposition to the new strategic pact with
the United States appears to have intensified efforts to
influence public opinion about it.
Ensaf newspaper, one of the three media outlets the
government has said receives funding from Iran, and whose parent
company Avapress has offices in Tehran, has published six
critical articles on the pact since it was signed by President
Barack Obama on a whistlestop visit to Kabul on May 2.
The three media outlets feature news reports that hold
little interest for Afghans, but are important to Iran, using
the same messages and wordage carried by Iranian state media.
The state of Israel, for instance, is called "the Zionist
regime", a term Afghan officials generally avoid using.
"The fact is the stories broadcast have been made available
by Iranian sources for propaganda purposes", Loftullah Mashal, a
spokesman for the intelligence agency NDS, said last month. The
NDS later retracted that claim.
Iran first started attempting to influence Afghan affairs
through the media in 2006, said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar,
executive director of the Afghan media development group Nai.
"The pace has been quickening since 2011, which is when Iran
began to actually inject its viewpoint into Afghan media," he
Last year, Afghans were shocked when Tamadon TV broadcast a
live speech by Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani
criticising the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan.
Kabul is countering with its own pressure.
The Kabul-based reporter of Iran's semi-official Fars News
Agency, Abdul Hakimi, was arrested two weeks ago on charges of
spying, Afghan officials said. The NDS declined to comment.
The relatively large, often Western-backed press corps can
also face intimidation, abduction or even death for reporting on
issues such as corruption and other government failings.
Afghanistan ranks seventh on the Committee to Protect
Journalists' "Impunity Index", a listing of countries where
journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve
One man who says he is painfully familiar with Iranian
interference is author and journalist Razaq Mamoon. He says a
masked man who threw acid in his face in January of last year
was working for Tehran. The Iranian embassy in Kabul has not
commented on his allegations.
Though media reports at the time said his assailant staged
the attack over a soured love affair, Mamoon says his 2010 book
which accuses Iran of sabotage and espionage in Afghanistan,
motivated Iranian intelligence agencies to attack him.
"Those individuals who planned the attack on me are still in
power and their Iranian spy agencies are still very active in
Kabul," Mamoon, who now lives in New Delhi out of fear for his
safety, told Reuters in e-mailed comments.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Mirwais Harooni and
Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi in KABUL, Yeganeh Torbati in LONDON and
Patrick Markey in BAGHDAD; Editing by Michael Georgy and Bill