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Iran/Afghanistan: Khatami's Visit to Kabul Underscores Regional Tensions With U.S.

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami used a one-day visit to Kabul this week to stress cooperation with Afghanistan but resentment toward Washington's war on terrorism, which he says is advancing U.S. interests in the region. RFE/RL looks at Iranian-Afghan relations and why Tehran feels those relations are threatened by Washington.

Prague, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visit to Kabul -- the first by an Iranian head of state in 40 years -- provided some vivid images of how much Tehran's relations with Afghanistan have been affected by Washington's war on terrorism.

As Khatami met on 13 August with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Iranian president was flanked by Iranian security agents, but his Afghan counterpart was flanked by American bodyguards. The U.S. bodyguards, composed of special-forces soldiers, replaced Karzai's own Afghan security men following the assassination of Vice President Hadji Abdul Qadir on 6 July.

And Khatami found an uncomfortable listener in Karzai as he used a joint press conference to criticize what he called Washington's overly aggressive foreign policies in the wake of 11 September.

Khatami said: "I believe that American leaders have a misunderstanding and an incorrect perception both about their own power and their own interests.... By misusing the bitter incident of 11 September, [they] have created a warlike and rough atmosphere in the world."

The Iranian president added that those countries with the most power have the most responsibility for establishing peace. "We need peace, and we need understanding. The destiny of mankind is everyone's responsibility. Those who are powerful have even more responsibility to bring peace to the world," Khatami said.

Khatami did not specify whether he was faulting Washington for creating a warlike atmosphere in Central Asia, where it has deployed soldiers in several countries to support its antiterrorism efforts, or whether he was referring to U.S. threats against Iraq.

Iran has repeatedly charged Washington with using the war on terrorism to advance its interests in energy-rich Central Asia and to try to isolate Iran, which has sought to re-establish its influence in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tehran has also said it opposes any U.S. military campaign against Iraq as interference in the Gulf area.

Khatami's verbal assault on Washington forced Karzai -- whose government is the result of the U.S.-led destruction of the Taliban last year -- to remind him that, "Both America and Iran are good friends of Afghanistan [and] both helped us fight terrorism." Karzai also told his visitor that he hoped Kabul could mediate between Tehran and Washington and "do something to patch up [their] differences."

The diplomatic awkwardness of the joint press conference was overshadowed by the larger agenda of the Iranian president's one-day visit, which featured talks on regional security, drug smuggling, trade, and the problems of more than 1 million Afghan refugees in Iran. But it did serve to underline once again the clash of U.S. and Iranian interests, which has dominated Iranian-Afghan relations since the collapse of the Taliban.

Since the Taliban's fall, Iran has sought to convert its role as one of the key supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance into a partnership with the new Afghan government, which is dominated by former Northern Alliance figures. But those efforts have been opposed by Washington, with the result that Tehran has had limited success in courting Kabul.

U.S. opposition has largely restricted Iran to promoting its interests in western Afghanistan. There, Tehran has capitalized on its previous support to the Taliban resistance movement to maintain and expand its ties with the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan. Iran has begun repairing the highway from Herat to the Iranian border and is planning electricity supplies for the province.

The aid to western Afghanistan is part of some $560 million that Iran has pledged for Afghan reconstruction, the largest contribution by any one country. Tehran also has offered 2,000 Iranian university scholarships for Afghan students and has helped repair Afghan state television and provide it with Iranian films, which are easily understood by many Afghan viewers.

Still, Iran's aid to the governor of Herat has proved worrisome to both Washington and many in Kabul, because it strengthens Khan's hand even as the central government needs to establish its authority nationwide in order to assure law and order and encourage economic growth.

Ismail Khan, a highly independent power broker and the undisputed master of much of western Afghanistan, has shown little interest so far in cooperating with other Afghan cities, such as southern Kandahar, that also trade with Iran. The other cities accuse Ismail Khan of levying exorbitant road taxes on trucks passing through his border fiefdom. Troops loyal to him have also clashed repeatedly with ethnic Pashtun troops from southwestern Afghanistan.

The Herat governor occasionally works with Kabul, including recently transferring some $130,000 in taxes to the central government to help with the national budget. But the fact that Ismail Khan maintains a private army of some 30,000 troops makes his cooperation voluntary and largely on his own terms.

At the same time, Tehran has worried Washington by maintaining its support for Afghanistan's Shiite minority, which also fought against the Taliban. Iran has particularly aided the leader of the Shiite Hazara-based Hezb-i-Wahdat faction, Karim Khalili, who also commands a powerful militia.

Some observers in Kabul call Iran's support for the militia leaders evidence that it has a double policy toward Afghanistan. The double policy allows Tehran to foster relations with the central government while retaining an ability to undermine that same government if it wants to.

Eshaq Negargar, a former Kabul University professor and regional expert, described Iran's policy this way in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Afghan Service. "Unfortunately, this double-standard policy is so vivid that one cannot deny it, because we saw at the time of Burhanuddin Rabbani's administration [former Afghan president from 1992-1996], Iran's government supported Hezb-i-Wahdat. But when Iran concluded that that party did not satisfy its interests, it began supporting Rabbani and [his ethnic Tajik-based party] Jamiat-i-Islami," Negargar said, adding: "Therefore, Iran has always strengthened two or three warlords against the central government in Afghanistan, and this danger still strongly exists in Afghanistan as there are warlords who are accepted by Iran and are 'patted on the shoulder.' But our problem is that Hamid Karzai has not yet been able to overcome this phenomenon of warlordism and, practically, it still exists."

As Iran seeks to strengthen its influence in Afghanistan, Washington has also accused Tehran of allowing some fleeing Al-Qaeda members to cross the border to safety. Tehran denies the charges and says it has arrested all members of the group coming onto its soil.

Just ahead of Khatami's visit to Kabul, Tehran handed over 16 suspected Al-Qaeda fighters to Saudi Arabia on 10-11 August. Saudi officials said the suspects would be tried in Saudi courts and that any intelligence gathered from them would be given to Washington to help its war on terrorism.

U.S. officials reacted to the turnover by saying that it only confirms Iran has let Al-Qaeda fugitives escape from Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that: "They have permitted Al-Qaeda to enter their country. They are permitting Al-Qaeda to be present in their country today. And it may very well be that they, for whatever reason, have turned over some people to other countries, but they've not turned any over to us."

The top U.S. defense official did, however, call Khatami's visit to Kabul "probably a useful thing." He said that it is important for Afghanistan to have good relations with all its neighbors if it is to develop a strong and well-functioning central government. "That's much easier to do if you have neighbors that are not unfriendly," he said.

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