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Tehran-Sponsored Hospital Eyed With Suspicion In Afghanistan

BAMIYAN -- Afghanistan has been the recipient of millions of dollars in assistance from neighboring Iran. But while Kabul has accepted the much-needed support, it has often shown wariness of Tehran's motives.

That's because many in Afghanistan accuse the Islamic republic of meddling in the country's internal affairs and exerting its influence through its export of cultural and political views, strong media presence, and the funding of religious schools.

It is little surprise then that Iran has met stiff opposition with its plan to build and run a regional hospital in the impoverished central province of Bamiyan -- a predominately Hazara and Shi'ite region where Tehran once exerted considerable influence.

Iran says it will spend up to $30 million to construct the Imam Khomeini Regional Hospital. The only catch was that Kabul would allow Tehran to operate the facility for the next 50 years. But officials and locals alike balked at the proposal, leading construction to be stalled since 2012.

Now, local Afghan officials say a compromise has been reached.

"After the hospital is built, services will be provided by our Iranian partners for five years until the Ministry of Health has the capacity to provide those services," says Dr. Raihana Haidari, the provincial health director.

Haidari says construction of the hospital -- named after the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini -- will begin in the coming months. It is expected to be completed in three years.

Health infrastructure in the remote province is poor, and the Imam Khomeini Regional Hospital would go a long way toward fulfilling the needs of residents of Bamiyan and neighboring provinces. The hospital will be fitted with 200 beds and will also include a center where doctors and nurses can be trained and educated.

Bad Iran Memories

The governor's office has attempted to assuage concerns that Iran may use the hospital to reassert its influence in the region.

"According to the agreement, Iran's only responsibility is to provide health services," says Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, the spokesman for the governor of Bamiyan. "Iran will be involved in no other activities."

That, however, has failed to eliminate fears in Bamiyan, where many have questioned Iran's motives.

"This region doesn't have good memories of Iran's activities because of what they did in the past," says Khairullah Hamidi, a prominent civil society activist in Bamiyan.

After the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the collapse of the subsequent regime in Kabul in the early 1990s, Afghanistan's neighbors funded, armed, and trained their Afghan proxies to gain regional leverage -- a move that helped fuel the country's descent into civil war. Iran supported Shi'ite and Persian-speaking groups, including groups in Bamiyan.

"Time will reveal their motives," Hamidi says of Iran's hospital initiative. "They have their special reasons. They're trying to gain influence in Afghanistan through reconstruction projects."

Afghanistan and Iran share deep historical, cultural, and linguistic links, and the two countries have moved to cement their burgeoning political and economic ties in recent years. But suspicions are still rife.

"Iran should stick to the [new] agreement and just finish the job," says Amir Sharif, a professor at the University of Bamiyan. He says Afghanistan should only accept the offer if it comes with no strings attached.

Sharif says anti-Iranian sentiments are running high in Bamiyan. He refers to the Iranian culture center in the University of Bamiyan, which was closed months after opening several years ago following constant protests from students and teachers.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.