Iran aids Afghans as US frets
Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is in Tehran for talks with Iran's government.
In this Afghan city near the Iranian border, the streets are clean. Traffic lights and telephones function. Officials are paid, and very few weapons are on display. Welcome to Herat, the focal point of US accusations about Iranian meddling in Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The claims are one reason President Bush lists Iran as part of an "axis of evil." If true, they would threaten regional stability during a critical postwar time of rebuilding in Afghanistan.
Despite Iran's denials, the Bush administration seems intent on making sure Iran does not meddle. Before Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, left for Tehran yesterday, he met for several hours with US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Mr. Khalilzad says he briefed him on what the US wants: "normal relations between Afghanistan and Iran based on noninterference." He adds, though, that it's up to Mr. Karzai to choose to bring up the US objections.
The Iranian-backed governor of Herat, however, says Iran is doing nothing more nefarious than pursuing an anxious neighbor's interests. Although the US accuses Iran of providing weapons and cash to Ismail Khan to undermine the fragile US-backed Afghan government of Karzai, the warlord insists that Iran's intentions are noble enough.
"We expect that Iran will be a good neighbor and will help rebuild Afghanistan," says Governor Khan in an interview. "After 23 years of war, we don't need any weapons or ammunition from anyone."
Few doubt Iran's interest in Afghanistan: It has long battled drug-running on its border, it has for years played host to more than 2 million Afghan refugees, and after the murder of nine of its diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif in 1998, Iran nearly went to war against the Taliban regime.
Iran was instrumental with the US in creating the interim government in Bonn, Germany, that includes Khan's son, Mir Wais Sadiq. But Khan reportedly felt cheated by the Bonn deal. To overcome that initial reluctance, Iran sent a plane to carry Khan to the Kabul inauguration ceremony.
American claims of meddling are "baseless," Iranian Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi said last week. "How is it possible for us to weaken the government we helped to create?"
But a Western diplomat based in Tehran says it's not all that clear-cut. "It seems there is a clear supply of arms to Khan," says the diplomat. "It's unhelpful, but we know the CIA, Russia, Pakistan, India, and Turkey are all dishing out cash and other things.
"Iran sees this as their sphere of influence," the diplomat adds. "There may be some fiddling on the edges, but their point of view is that if Iran didn't support the Northern Alliance for six years, there would have been no quick victory [over the Taliban]."
Part of Iran's reaction is due to the very strong presence of the US - a two-decade arch foe of the Islamic republic - in its backyard. It is a point that some in Washington fail to recognize, says Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan-Iran specialist at New York University.
"I'm puzzled" by the US accusations, Mr. Rubin says. "The US has an interest in eastern Afghanistan. Iran has an interest in the West. But the idea that Iran is helping destabilize the regime, I find unbelievable. The Karzai government is not happy with what the US is saying about Iran."