HERAT, Afghanistan — Students at Afghanistan's Herat University thought that they were living in new era of openness, one in which the right to criticize authority was increasing.
Last week, however, the Iranian Consulate in this Afghan city near the Iranian border complained to the Afghan Ministry of Culture that the student newspaper, "Pegah," was inappropriately critical of Tehran's crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.
The newspaper was closed for 10 days, the university fired the responsible journalists and the paper was reopened with no news of the protests.
The measure, however, is likely to backfire among Afghanistan's increasingly educated and media-savvy younger generation. Student groups denounced the newspaper's closure and refused to hold their tongues in public.
Never miss a local story.
Mohammad Faqiri, the spokesman for Herat University's "New Generation Club," admits that his group has some pretty advanced views for young people in a traditional Muslim nation, but he said he's sure that his group is in the mainstream on one issue: Iran.
"The Iranian government has finally exposed itself as a theocratic, totalitarian regime," said Faqiri, 23, a leader of the organization of a dozen students who meet secretly once a week because the Afghan government frowns on their independent political activities. "Iranian leaders are trying to hang onto power by killing people and destroying their free media."
That's a shift in sentiment, considering the role Iran has played in recent years as a cultured, wise and stable big brother to backward Afghanistan.
Devastated by the brutality of their own warlords, many Afghans looked to Iran during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and the Taliban rule of the 1990s and again after the U.S. invaded their country in 2001.
Iran had residual influence, particularly with millions of Afghan refugees returning home after living in Iran and sharing its culture and politics for 12 years or more. A million Afghan refugees remain in Iran.
By virtue of its economic ties and support for key areas of the Afghan government, Iran still wields considerable influence in Afghanistan. Increasingly, though, it's viewed by the broader public and by university students in Herat as an anachronistic and authoritarian regime that opposes the will of its own people.
Indeed, after the government crackdown and the popular defiance following the disputed June 12 election, Iran's political influence in Afghanistan is in a downward spiral.
It's a role reversal. From 1996 to the U.S. invasion in 2001, Afghanistan under the Taliban was one of the world's most brutal theocracies. Today, however, its big cities are witnessing the beginnings of an open society with a vibrant news media.
Iran, which enjoyed growing clout and global influence as it challenged the policies of former President George W. Bush, is suddenly bursting with dissent and relying on state-backed militiamen to keep order. Iranians traveling in and out of Afghanistan by road said the country's secret police, volunteer militias and its hard-line Revolutionary Guard remain firmly in control.
Many Afghans think that Iran's powerful religious leaders will never regain their domineering influence over Iran.
"This is the start of an important revolution in Iran," said Afghan constitutional law professor Mohammad Rafek Shahir, 55, the head of Herat's "Council of Experts," an Afghan professional body that works with Iran and other foreign countries.
"We are impressed with the Iranians and their struggle for change, but with what has happened in the past weeks, Iran's influence here has been devastated. We don't have to be concerned with their efforts to influence Afghanistan any more since they are going to be obsessed with their own internal problems for some time to come. Even their leader, President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, can't expect to command the world stage anymore."
Iran maintains a large and highly-secretive consulate in Herat staffed by several dozen diplomats, spies and security agents, according to Afghans who live here; the U.S. hasn't yet opened a consulate in Afghanistan's most important western city.
"In the past decade, Iran has tried to create great problems for the United States here in Afghanistan," Shahir said. "On the one hand they have sought to support the Afghan government and, at the same time, undermine U.S. influence by supporting elements of the insurgency."
Direct evidence of that support has been hard to pin down, however. George Gavrilis, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan research organization in New York, said in a June 5 article that his efforts to "corroborate these charges" in Afghanistan this year, indicated instead "that evidence of Iran's covert presence consists of seized passports and (anti-American) literature," but not weapons or explosives as Iran has provided to its political clients in Iraq.
Though several senior al Qaida leaders and at least one of Osama bin Laden's sons are thought to have taken refuge in Iran after November 2001, Western diplomats discount as unsubstantiated charges that Shiite Muslim Iran continues to assist that Sunni terrorist group.
However, they credit Iran with providing nearly $300 million in development aid in the past eight years, a tiny amount compared with the billions provided by the U.S. and Europe, but used far more effectively in road building projects. Trade during the past two years has totaled about $260 million, according to Iranian trade and finance officials.
At the same time, though, Afghanistan, while roiled by anti-American and anti-Afghan insurgents, is developing into a more modern nation with an increasingly open media, with millions of new cell phone users, vast cable TV choices and easy Internet access for a young generation of Afghans, at least in its cities. The Twitter and Facebook revolution has Afghan youth abuzz with stories of Iranian brutality.
Iran's influence in Afghanistan is cultural and political but it is also seen in religious institutions. At the Shiite Scientific School of Sadiqiyah in Herat, one of the city's largest educational institutions, teachers use Iranian textbooks that openly praise Iranian-backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both of whom oppose Israel's policies toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
Qadeer Taqavi, the school's top administrator, said, however, that Iranian influence in his school is grossly exaggerated. He said scholars look to Iraqi Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, ahead of any Iranian governmental religious leaders. He also had kind words for President Barack Obama.
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent)
THE EYES OF YOUTH
From the perspective of younger Afghans, their country and Iran seem to have opposite problems.
"We have a free government and a repressed society, Iran has an open society and a repressive government," said Shabnam Simia, 23, a member of the "New Generation Club" who lived in Iran as a refugee for 16 years.
The group is typical of the rapid-fire changes racing through this war-torn nation. Its members told McClatchy that Iran's civil society is better developed than their own.
Simia gave the example of single women being unable to go out at night or to cafes or picnics together on the edge of town because of Afghan police.
She said she longed for the social rights that modern Iranian women enjoy, but detested a government that beats women protesting for democracy. "We see on the television now that the Iranian people are asking for help and they are hopeless, so we must do what we can with our moral support to help them prevail."
The group's spokesman, Mohammad Faqiri, a history student at Herat University, said that the group admired what he called the "humanist" views of American politicians, including Abraham Lincoln. "The leaders in Iran can't even deal with history," he added.
"Look at President Ahmadinejad — he can't even accept the Holocaust as a real event in the 20th century."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY