Iran aids Afghans as US frets

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is in Tehran for talks with Iran's government.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

"Khan aligned himself closer to Iran than the interim government initially - perhaps for his own security interests," says a Western relief worker who asked not to be named. "But he is a ruler in the traditional sense and is adjusting his views. Khan understands that he needs to be closer to Kabul, to comply with the rules."

Iran, adamantly opposed the Taliban and backed the rebel Northern Alliance for six years. Iranian officials point out that their support allowed the US to turn the alliance into a proxy force in the northeast of the country to help topple the Taliban last year. In the west, after Khan escaped from a Taliban prison in Kandahar in 2000, he sought exile in Iran and was allowed to muster forces among refugees there to join the battle against the Taliban on the western front.

"We want peace and stability in Afghanistan, and we are anxious about events there because they have a direct impact on our country," says Elahe Koulaiei, a member of Iran's parliamentary foreign affairs and security commission. "Our official policy is to protect the interim government, to back Karzai.

"But there are some different outlooks and views in our country - in all things," Ms. Koulaiei says, adjusting her headscarf. "With respect to the US accusation, there may be some real matters, I don't deny it."

Iran's parliament has launched an inquiry into the US accusations.

Khan is one of the most well-known mujahideen commanders to have fought during the 1980s Soviet occupation. He went on to become governor, and has brought a degree of security to this region that is almost unparalleled elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Khan says he is "surprised" by the allegations of Iranian interference, which he says come from Taliban sources "not yet finally defeated" who are trying to destabilize his rule for their own future designs.

"Some American friends are here already, and are witness to the situation," Khan says, referring to a four-man American military civil-military unit based in Herat the past two months. They are helping relief agencies and the United Nations fill gaps in humanitarian projects, and they say they have seen no evidence of undue Iranian influence here.

"Our policy is that both the US and Iran are working for the same objective: a stable Afghanistan," says Curt, a captain in the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, who could not give his full name. The unit is among a group of American plainclothes soldiers billeted for months in the highest building in Herat, on a military base directly above the governor's guesthouse.

"I have not seen anything in the western region that [Iran] is undermining this," the captain says.

But Khan's ties to Iran have not always been so close. During his first term as governor from 1992 to 1995, his views seemed to not favor Iran. Back then, agreement on a large road-building project from Herat to the border fell apart two or three times. Bulldozers and graders are racing now to open the way, which is critical to commerce.

"I don't think Khan likes Iran too much," says an Afghan observer who asked not to be named. "And Khan is a little afraid of Iran right now, because Afghanistan has no owner now. They don't support each other."

Iran has committed $567 million, and the US has committed $296 million so far, to halt drug trade and rebuild Afghanistan.

"We insist on being in Afghanistan, and will remain in Afghanistan," Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister, says.

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