- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

HERAT, Afghanistan Afghanistan is neither a war zone nor a romantic vision for 25-year-old Iranian Reza Shakeri. It's a land of opportunity.

"There are possibilities here," said the entrepreneur, here on his third business trip in less than a year. "If you're smart, there are ways to make money."

The United States has made it a point to keep Iran out of Afghanistan. It has accused the Islamic republic of fomenting trouble against the interim Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.

"We're not a major player," Elahe Koolahi, a member of the Iranian parliament, said during an interview in Tehran.

But here in Herat, 75 miles from the Iranian border and 233 miles from the major Iranian city of Mashad, increasing numbers of independent Iranian businessmen are making the slow, torturous trek along a battered and mostly unpaved road to buy or sell goods and seek out investment opportunities.

The dusty border transit point at Dogharoun-Islamghaleh on the road between Mashad and Herat has come alive with activity since the collapse of the Taliban and the relative stability brought to the country by the Karzai government. Afghan trucks can't enter Iran nor Iranian trucks Afghanistan, so goods must be carried over the border.

There are no official numbers, but as many as 300 trucks a day make the journey, officials said.

That trade is evident in Herat stores and bazaars filled with Iranian candies, toiletries, light bulbs, canned goods, poultry, carpets, building supplies, fabrics and pharmaceuticals.

"I don't think America has the power to stop Iranians," Mr. Koolahi said.

Iran and Afghanistan share a 550-mile border, and linguistic and cultural ties that give Iranians an edge in Afghan trade. Many Afghan-bound goods, including relief supplies, are shipped to the region via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and driven north to Dogharoun-Islamghaleh. Plans are under way to reopen another border crossing to the south, near the Iranian city of Zabol, allowing easy access to the Kandahar region.

"If that gets going, it will help the people in the south of both countries and further trade possibilities," said Ali Reza Ali-Abadi, deputy consul at the massive Iranian compound here.

So far, only private-sector adventurers have attempted to scratch out a living here. Mr. Shakeri used to buy cheap computer supplies brought to Afghanistan via Pakistan and sell them back home in Iran. Now he has begun importing office furniture and food from Iran.

Other than the dilapidated road from the border which Iran has vowed to repave as part of a $560 million aid package to Afghanistan the only thing stemming the tide of Iranian trade expansion here may be the lack of a legal infrastructure and facilities for foreign investors. Afghans vow to reform the rules, but problems persist.

Mr. Shakeri originally had plans to build a cheese-puff factory here but decided against it when confronted with a wall of hassles, including a $50,000 initial outlay, ostensibly to register his company.

The Afghan legal system doesn't account for current realities, Mr. Ali-Abadi said.

"Most of the businessmen come, research possibilities, become discouraged and leave," he said. "The Afghans have to attract foreign investment. To do that, they have to reform the laws."

In the absence of a real legal system, most contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on. And stories abound about Iranian businessmen cheated by Afghans who refused to pay up. Whenever Mr. Shakeri has a problem, he merely drops the name of a friend, a bigwig in the local security forces, and the problem quickly resolves itself. "I have Afghan friends here," said Mr. Shakeri, who has begun to turn out a profit. "Without Afghan friends, I wouldn't do it."

Despite the relative safety of the city run by warlord-turned-governor Mohammed Ismail Khan fears about the political stability persist. And though there are plans to build an amusement park, there's very little entertainment for the business travelers, most of whom stay at the dirty, run-down $20-a-night Hotel Satisfaction.

"There's no satellite television, there's no telephone and this hotel's a dump," said Mehran Javan, 27, a chemical engineer from Mashad who came here to consider "major investment opportunities."

Just four hours after arriving in the city of 120,000, he and his partner said they'd had enough and were set to quit the next day.

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