Afghanistan warns Iran fuel ban could spark crisis

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Iran’s decision to stop up to 2,500 fuel trucks at its border with Afghanistan is tantamount to an “embargo,” an Afghan commerce official said Tuesday, as others warned the move could leave millions of Afghans shivering as winter rolls in.

The unofficial ban, now in its second week, has pushed up wholesale domestic fuel prices as much as 70 percent. The shortage of fuel also threatens to stop trucks loaded with commercial goods from reaching the capital along a key southern transport route.

Iran on Tuesday acknowledged a link between the ban and its recent decision to slash domestic fuel subsidies in a bid to cut costs and boost an economy squeezed by international sanctions. Afghan officials say Iran has also told them it is concerned the shipments are destined for NATO forces operating in Afghanistan, though Afghan and NATO officials deny that.

Iran “wants to impose a kind of sanction or embargo on us,” Farid Shirzai, head of the Afghan Commerce Ministry’s fuel department, told The Associated Press. “This is un-Islamic and against international transit law. They have no right to stop (the tankers) because they are merely passing through Iranian territory.”

Iran supplies about 30 percent of the country’s refined fuel, Afghan officials say. The remainder of the blocked shipments of vehicle and heating fuel comes from Iraq and Turkmenistan and is only transiting Iran, they say.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday the issue would soon be resolved, stressing the ban was the result of “technical problems” after the Iranian subsidies were cut in late December.

“After changes that cut subsidies, it is natural that some technical problems occur when sending fuel to neighboring countries. ... The problem is being resolved,” Mehmanparast said.

Afghan Commerce Ministry and customs officials have said Iranian authorities notified them that the trucks were not being allowed through for national security reasons — a reference to the suspicion that the fuel is bound for NATO forces.

The dispute could test relations between the neighbors, creating a new challenge for President Hamid Karzai’s government at a time when it is struggling in tandem with its NATO allies to quell a virulent insurgency and to rebuild the country after decades of war.

Senior Afghan officials recently traveled to Tehran to discuss the fuel issue. Shirzai said Iran on Monday began allowing 40 trucks per day through its borders with three western Afghan provinces, up from about four trucks per day in the preceding two weeks.

“The issue, we hope, will be solved sooner rather than later so that (Afghans) will not have to suffer because of a lack of day-to-day goods,” Waheed Omer, Karzai’s spokesman, said recently.

“We hope that Iran can contribute to being a good neighbor,” Omer said. “We hope we can settle this issue through diplomatic channels.”

NATO officials insist they are not receiving the fuel. Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said Monday that “we do not get any logistics from Iran.”

Refined fuel prices have risen from around $900 per ton to between $1,500 and $1,600 per ton, said Hobidullah, the head of the chamber of commerce in the southern Nimroz province, one of three provinces bordering Iran that have seen shipments halted.

He said as many as 80 percent of the gasoline stations on the main road between the southern Kandahar province and the northwestern province of Herat had shut down because of a lack of supplies. The situation was the same between Nimroz and Herat, he said.

“If these trucks don’t go through, all the transportation” from much of the south to Kabul will stop, said Hobidullah who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

The ban appears to reflect domestic challenges in Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration has cut fuel and other subsidies to rein in spending as the country grapples with double-digit inflation and U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions.

The fuel shipment ban provides Iran with some additional cash. Shirzai, the Commerce Ministry official, said the stranded drivers are required to pay Iran $100 per day.

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Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.

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