Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai plans to visit Iran on 24 February with a high-ranking delegation from his administration. The two-day visit will focus on strengthening relations between the two countries at a time when Washington says Tehran is trying to destabilize Karzai's administration -- allegations that both the European Union and the Afghan administration downplay.
Kabul, 22 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A planned visit to Iran by Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai this weekend comes amid allegations from Washington that Tehran is trying to destabilize the administration in Kabul.
Karzai and at least five of his ministers are due to arrive in Tehran on Sunday (24 February) for a two-day visit. Karzai plans to meet with Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami. He also is expected to visit a camp for Afghan refugees near the Iranian-Afghan border.
However, there is a chance that harsh winter storms could cause the visit to be postponed. Kabul was blanketed in a thick layer of slushy snow overnight, and the skies remain overcast today. Most United Nations flights out of Kabul today have been canceled. Earlier this week, Karzai cited poor weather conditions as his reason for canceling a planned visit to Germany.
The visit to Iran comes at a sensitive time. Last month, U.S. President George W. Bush included Iran on a list of countries he says are part of an "axis of evil" supporting terrorism.
Afghan interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has dismissed the U.S. allegations, saying Iran's "official and public" policy on Afghanistan has been one of support for the interim administration.
"What will be discussed in the Islamic Republic of Iran will be to strengthen the relations and to expand it in different fields. Only from a situation [where] a representative government in Afghanistan rules, and the political process moves ahead and stability prevails, can neighboring countries benefit. Not from any other situation."
Abdullah also praised the recent arrests by Iranian authorities of some 150 suspected members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network who tried to cross into Iran from western Afghanistan.
"I should say very briefly that the Islamic Republic of Iran has already cooperated with Afghanistan against terrorism. And they have promised us that should they find any suspect related to Al-Qaeda, they will inform our security authorities. And they have had such cooperation with us."
The European Union also has dismissed Washington's allegations of Iranian interference in Afghanistan. Yesterday, the EU special envoy Klaus Klaiber said Iran fully supports an international security presence in Kabul. He also said that without Iran's help, reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan ultimately will fail.
Klaiber made the remarks in Tehran after talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and senior officials from Iran's Interior Ministry.
He noted that Iran is interested in helping to stabilize the police force in Afghanistan. He also said that officials in Iran had told him the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul is crucial for regional stability.
But Klaiber would not comment on Tehran's views about calls within Afghanistan's interim administration for ISAF troops to be sent to other parts of Afghanistan -- including the western provinces of Herat, Farah, and Nimruz, which border Iran.
Tehran has vehemently denied Washington's allegations that it is trying to destabilize Afghanistan by providing weapons to groups hostile to Karzai's administration.
One focal point in that allegation is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun guerrilla leader from Afghanistan who opposes the interim administration and who has sought shelter in Iran.
Hekmatyar has given interviews from Iran in which he has threatened that mujahedin fighters from his radical Hezb-i-Islami party are ready to fight in order to drive any foreign troops out of Afghanistan.
But since giving those interviews, Hekmatyar has seen his office shut down by Iranian authorities. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah says he sees that move as a goodwill gesture toward the Afghan interim administration.
"Regarding Mr. Hekmatyar, I should say that the Islamic Republic of Iran has declared that Mr. Hekmatyar is allowed to leave Iran [in order to surrender to authorities in Afghanistan.] And he has been prevented [by Iranian authorities] from carrying out all of his [political] activities. He does not have the permission to conduct political activities any more from his residence there."
Abdullah said the interim administration does view Hekmatyar as an opponent of the post-Taliban transition process outlined in December's Bonn agreement. But he said the interim administration is not asking Tehran for Hekmatyar's extradition.
"We are not interested in [asking for the return] of Mr. Hekmatyar to Afghanistan. His stance is completely clear about the interim administration, because in the days that he was permitted to give interviews, he had declared his intense enmity for the interim administration. Thus, the stance of the interim government regarding [Hekmatyar] is clear, as well."
In fact, Abdullah says Hekmatyar's presence in Iran is not an item on the agenda of Karzai's upcoming visit.
"After all, the issue of Mr. Hekmatyar is not as important as being involved in part of a negotiating agenda [with Iran]. The trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran is [meant] to expand and strengthen the relations between the two neighboring countries. And this issue is more important than the issue of Mr. Hekmatyar."
Iranian state newspapers this week reported that Hekmatyar would be handed over to the custody of the Afghan administration in the coming days. But authorities in Kabul have not confirmed those reports.