The Obama administration has reacted to reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is accepting cash from Iran for official presidential expenses by saying it "doesn't question Iran's right to give Afghanistan assistance."
But State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States had "concerns" about the Iranian payments and wants Afghanistan to be able to decide its own future without influence from its neighbors.
"We do not question Iran's right to provide financial assistance to Afghanistan, nor do we question Afghanistan's right to accept that assistance," Crowley said. "What we think is important is Afghans having the ability to shape their own future without negative influences from its neighbors."
At a news conference, Karzai confirmed a report that first appeared in "The New York Times"
on October 24 that his chief of staff, Umer Daudzai, regularly receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash -- sometimes stuffed into bags -- from Iran.The 'Price of Patriotism'
"The New York Times" described Karzai's October 25 appearance before the press as "rambling [and] sometimes incoherent." The Afghan leader told reporters that Iranian officials give his office "bags of money -- yes, yes, it is done. We are grateful to the Iranians for this."
He added, "Patriotism has a price."
Karzai said he had instructed Daudzai, a former Afghan ambassador to Iran, to accept the money from Tehran, saying, "It is official and by my order."
The "Times" quoted unnamed sources as saying the cash amounted to a slush fund that Karzai and Daudzai used to pay Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders, and even Taliban commanders, to secure their loyalty.
Iran on October 26 acknowledged that it has given "assistance" to Afghanistan. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tehran has been assisting Afghanistan in reconstruction efforts out of "deep concern" for its neighbor's stability. Mehmanparast did not elaborate on the form of the assistance.
Crowley said the United States recognized that as Afghanistan's neighbor, Iran was going to play a role in the country's development, but that Washington questioned whether the cash donations were tied to Tehran's own agenda.
"We'll let the government of Afghanistan speak to how they spend the financial assistance received from other countries, but we remain skeptical of Iran's motives given its history of playing a destabilizing role with its neighbors," he said. "We hope that Iran will take responsibility to play a constructive role in the future of Afghanistan."Concern Over Relations
U.S. officials have long-standing concerns about the relationship between Kabul and Tehran, mainly having to do with the belief that Iran is trying to undercut the efforts of coalition forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. NATO officials have accused Iran of arming and financing members of the Taliban.
Washington's relationship with Karzai has hit several snags in recent months, as the Afghan leader has become increasingly outspoken toward the West. In April he reportedly threatened to join the Taliban if the international community did not stop pressing him to reform.
Karzai did not offer any details on how the money from Iran -- or from the other nations he said also contribute money -- is spent, just that it is used "to help the presidential office" and "dispense assistance" to individuals.
He told reporters: "It is not hidden. We are grateful for the Iranians' help in this regard. The United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices."
Asked whether the United States actually gives bags full of cash to the presidential office, Karzai responded, "Yes, it does give bags of money."
Crowley said most U.S. assistance is delivered "electronically," through financial institutions like banks.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said he wasn't surprised that Karzai's office is receiving money from Iran, which he said was playing a destabilizing role in Afghanistan.
Speaking to the cable news network MSNBC, Morrell said, "I think Iran in Afghanistan -- much as it has been in Iraq -- has been walking both sides of the street for years, clearly trying to curry favor with the government while at the same time, on the other hand, training, arming, financing, directing antigovernment forces."
The United States led the UN Security Council in passing a fourth round of sanctions against Iran in June, as punishment for a lack of transparency in its nuclear program.written by Heather Maher with agency material