ARMALAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The television in the corner of the port-a-cabin reception room where Ali Tavakoli Khomeini receives guests outside the Afghan city of Herat is tuned to Iran’s state 24-hour news channel.
Large maps of Iran and Afghanistan adorn the walls, and a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hangs alongside one of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. An Afghan cook arranges a spread of Persian cuisine.
While the United States will soon have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan waging war against the Taliban, Iran is quietly exerting influence on its neighbor in a subtler way: through bricks and mortar, railways and road.
Tavakoli, an Iranian engineer, has built some 400 km (250 miles) of highway and railroad in western Afghanistan over the last six years, paving the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road.
His firm is building a dam in rural Herat, and has just finished laying foundations for a railway that could one day link south and east Asia to the Middle East and Europe, reviving some of the most important ancient overland trade routes in the world.
It would reduce the cost of moving goods across the region to a fraction of that of highway transport, he said.
“A man who builds a path will always be granted a place in heaven by God,” he says, recalling a proverb told to him 10 years ago by Saparmurat Niyazov, the then president of Turkmenistan, where Tavakoli spent eight years building roads.
“That’s all you want to do ... take a stone from somewhere and make a stepping-stone for someone, somewhere else.”
The project is still delayed. A final 58 km stretch to Herat province’s capital, Herat City, needs to be built by Afghanistan, according to the project’s terms, and has been held up.
Tavakoli predicts it could take up to another 10 years for the railroad to be completed, linking Herat to Iran’s northeastern city of Mashad and on to Turkey.
Iran has spent millions of dollars on development and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, although its role is limited somewhat by U.S. policy, which restricts Iranian companies’ involvement in U.S.-backed development projects.
Tavakoli says he has not lost contracts because of the U.S. rules and it is not an issue he gives much thought to.
“I’m not a political man, I’m an engineer. I’m asked to put two and two together and come up with four,” Tavakoli said.
He won the tender to build the railroad from the Iranian government, after it pledged some $500 million of money for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan at a donor’s conference in Japan in 2002.
Herat is one of Afghanistan’s safer provinces, but some districts have come under Taliban control over the past two to three years. Tavakoli says bureaucratic tardiness, rather than insecurity, presents the biggest challenge.
Waiting for countersignatures on contracts means Tavakoli has had to foot the cost of projects himself. He has so far forked out $4.5 million in order to continue work on a highway at Armalak. The governor of Herat told him officials in Kabul are still waiting for Saudi Arabia to provide the funding, he says.
Each time he starts a new project in Afghanistan’s countryside, Tavakoli rebuilds a village of prefab offices and shipping containers at a cost of about $2 million to house his offices, technicians and construction workers.
One of the biggest advantages of working in Afghanistan Tavakoli says is a cheap and work-hungry labor force. He employs 500 to 700 Afghan workers and credits himself with training skilled technicians.
“It’s the best thing I could do: teach someone how to build a bridge so that they can go off and do it themselves.”
Editing by Bill Tarrant