22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
In Bush's shadowWhen President Mohamed Khatami visited Kabul two weeks ago, the historic importance of his trip for Afghan-Iranian relations was overshadowed by the looming figure of the US, writes Azadeh Moaveni
For a few short hours, the American special forces responsible for the security of Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai also stood guard over Mohamed Khatami, the Iranian president. It was an awkward predicament for all involved, but also a reminder of the potentially divisive role of the United States in relations between the two countries.
Click to view caption
While American security guards were on alert during talks between Khatami and Karzai, Iranians were burning US and Israeli flags during demonstrations in Tehran
Questions about the United States dominated the joint press-conference, and Khatami took the opportunity to criticise President George W Bush's combative foreign policy which designates Iran as part of an "axis of evil".
That the United States cast such a long shadow over the proceedings suggests that the role of the United States in the region could become one of the largest roadblocks to peace and stability.
Ostensibly, Khatami went to Kabul to show support for the Afghan interim government, which Iranian diplomats were instrumental in shaping during the Bonn Conference. The visit marked an end to years of bloody division and strife for two nations that share a common history, language, and rich cultural tradition.
The establishment of the Karzai government has gone a long way in rebuilding ties between Iran and Afghanistan. Iran has always eyed Afghanistan as a potentially strong ally in the region.
Though thorny relations with Washington dominated the public side of the talks, Khatami came to discuss the repatriation of Afghan refugees, which has proceeded at a slower pace than Tehran would like. In recent weeks the United Nations has accused Iran of forcing refugees to return, an allegation that is not entirely inconsistent with Iran's track record in dealing with its Afghan refugees. Tehran worries that the slow return of Afghanis, in comparison to the flood returning from Pakistan, suggests that the refugees feel too well-integrated into Iranian society. And that they are ultimately choosing the difficult life of a refugee over the uncertainties of returning to Afghanistan.
Apart from the question of Afghan refugee repatriation, security concerns topped the agenda. Iran is quietly figuring out how to handle the movement of former Al-Qa'eda and Taliban fighters on its territory. Until now, it has remained unclear whether Tehran is actively apprehending the fighters and returning them to their countries of origin, or turning a blind eye to their shelters in the wilds of the border region. Even more significantly, though, was the question of Iran's relationship with Afghanistan's regional rulers, and Karzai's suspicion that Iran is preventing his government from consolidating control in the western part of the country.
For its part, Tehran feels entitled to maintain a special measure of control in Herat, and over its ruler Ismail Khan. There is no guarantee that the interim government will successfully maintain its delicate coalition, and extend security beyond the outskirts of Kabul. Tehran feels it must hedge its bets and protect itself with a firm anchor of influence in the western part of Afghanistan, should the country regress back into the violent conflicts that have dominated its past. Doubtlessly this insurance policy sits uncomfortably with Kabul, which would like to see Iran do more to stop the flow of arms which have been a key part of its relationship with regional leader Ismail Khan.
But Tehran believes that its special role supporting the Northern Alliance, which helped topple the Taliban, entitles it to a special role in western Afghanistan. From Iranian leftists, enamored with the romantic rebel Ahmed Shah Massoud, to traditional clerics aghast at the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Sunni Islam, Iran's political factions were united behind the conviction that the Taliban must be deposed. Like the United Nations, Iran officially recognised the Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and relations with the Taliban fluctuated from cold animosity to open hostility.
In 1998 the Taliban murdered 10 Iranian journalists and one diplomat in Mazar-al Sharif. These tragic events pushed Tehran to the brink of war. But UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, along with regional neighbours, convinced Iran to back away from war.
Following the diplomats' murder, Tehran-Taliban relations continued to oscillate. Officials occasionally travelled back and forth, and there was some cooperation on refugees, construction, and humanitarian aid, but for the most part distrust prevented any meaningful defusion of the fundamental animosity between the two regimes. The Taliban's encouragement and use of the opium trade as a major source of revenue infuriated Iran, which found its eastern border transformed into a violent bandit-ridden land where Iranian security forces were regularly killed while attempting to stop the smuggling of narcotics into the country.
At that time, Afghanistan was producing roughly 37,000 tonnes of opium a year, and opium use by Iranians was approaching record highs.
The economic stagnation and social despair wrought by the Taliban's unforgiving regime also kept Afghan refugees pouring into Iran. For an Iranian economy facing near 25 per cent unemployment, coping with the approximately one and a half million Afghans was an unbearable strain.
Unlike Pakistan, which treated its Afghans as pariahs, Iran attempted to provide for its refugees -- allowing children to attend Iranian schools, and receive other benefits of the state. Analysts estimate this relative generosity cost Iran about one billion dollars per year.
As it struggled to cope with Afghan refugees, Iran's military and security forces worked to undercut the Taliban regime which was causing the initial problem in Afghanistan. Through the combined force of military training, arms, and political support -- Tehran tried to bolster the Northern Alliance in its battle for territory, and to bring its often fractious ethnic groups and leaders into a united front. This support was as much a counter to the military rulers of Pakistan, whose hardline Sunnism and unpredictable politics worried Tehran, as much as a lifeline to Afghanistan.
By the fall of 2001, when the events of 11 September provoked the United States to launch a military attack on the Taliban, Iran found itself in the awkward position of sharing a bunker with its old arch-enemy. The Iranian regime artfully negotiated its new position, realising that with the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance would likely never persevere without America's military support. Iran's clerics publicly criticised the US-led attacks on Afghanistan, but privately shared intelligence with the United States and offered to assist American pilots in distress over Iranian territory.
When the Taliban fell in December 2001, Iran was already a full participant in the shaping of a political framework for a post-Taliban Afghan government.
With the appointment of Hamid Karzai, the Islamic republic was presented with an interim authority it could tolerate and work with.
But the close relationship between Karzai and the US has troubled the Iranians from the beginning. Indeed within weeks of the Karzai's governments establishment, the United States initiated a campaign of finger-pointing against Iran, alleging that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was attempting to consolidate control over the Western region of Afghanistan, and foment hostility against the American military presence on the ground.
Tehran wished to see a moderate Islamic government take shape on its eastern border. There has been speculation that Tehran would intervene if the new Afghanistan chooses the route of secular democracy. These speculations now seem superfluous -- Afghanistan is more in danger of falling apart at the seams, rather than coalescing and deciding one system over another. The expanded Iranian anxiety over the American military presence next door is still pervasive, and has been heightened by Karzai's decision to entrust American special forces with his security. Tehran fears that the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan such as the assassination of ministers and the internal provincial conflicts will force the Karzai regime to rely more heavily on US support. Thus far Karzai has successfully limited his reliance on the United States while remaining sensitive to Tehran's concerns. The evolving situation on the ground will determine how long he is able to continue this balancing act.
Despite all the political and security considerations that weigh heavily on Tehran-Kabul relations, a little noted phenomenon is gaining ground that could ultimately advance bilateral ties. As Afghan intellectuals and writers work to build new media, and a civil society from the ruins of life under the Taliban, they are looking to Tehran's reformists and newspapers for inspiration.
The Iranian reform movement's long- time struggle for free expression and open debate have particular resonance among Afghans, who are examining the very same questions of democracy, pragmatism, and Islamic government. The reformist press in Tehran is even considering moving some of its publications to Kabul, to be free from Iranian censors. Even if Afghan-Iranian relations are wracked with tension on the state level, the budding cultural ties may help encourage understanding, rather than mutual suspicion between these two neighbours.
Letter from the Editor
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