By Mina Habib
Afghanistan senators have accused Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of interfering in their country’s affairs, after he called on NATO to withdraw troops immediately and fund economic reconstruction instead.
Ahmadinejad made the remarks on March 26 during a regional conference on economic cooperation with Afghanistan, held in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe.
“The times of imperialism have long since passed,” he said, according to AFP news agency, warning that “those who do not learn from the mistakes of history will be punished”.
Ahmadinejad said NATO must end its “occupation” and instead allocate 25 per cent of its annual budget – or five per cent of member states’ annual defence spending – on rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy over the next decade.
For its part, he said, Iran would offer technical and economic assistance to Kabul, including investment, healthcare and infrastructure projects, Reuters news agency reported.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai, his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari and Imomali Rahmon of Tajikistan also attended the conference, as did a United States delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who walked out during Ahmadinejad’s speech.
The Iranian leader’s outspoken comments received a frosty reception at theMeshrano Jirga, or upper house of parliament, inKabul.
The senate’s 40-member Reform and Justice Group said the remarks were dangerous and irresponsible.
“Iran wants to fuel war in this country once again and reduce it to ruins,” the senators said in a statement.
They now plan to issue a formal request to Iranian officials to refrain from commenting on Afghanistan’s domestic affairs.
Amin Farjad, a counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Kabul, said Ahmadinejad’s comments should not be viewed as foreign meddling, and that he was entitled to air his opinions.
“It is true that on matters like the US and NATO presence, the main decision makers are the people of Afghanistan and their representatives. However, others have a right to comment,” Farjad told IWPR.
The international troop presence is a worry to Iran and the rest of the region, he said, adding, “We cannot remain indifferent to this presence because it poses security threats.”
As evidence, Farjad cited a US surveillance drone captured by the Iranian military in December 2011.
Tehransaid at the time that it hijacked the unmanned plane’s electronics and steered it to the ground after it flew over 200 kilometres into Iranian airspace, according to the BBC.
USofficials said the drone was monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, and crashed after a malfunction.
Afghan political analyst Wahid Mozhda told IWPR that Ahmadinejad’s speech was probably intended for domestic consumption, to demonstrate to hardliners that he was taking a strong line.
The president “attacks the US at every opportunity, thereby attempting to maintain his popularity among Iranians, particularly the clergy,” Mozhda said.
Ahmadinejad has denounced the occupation and called for the withdrawal of US troops on several occasions.
For their part, NATO officials have accused Iran of providing weapons to the Taleban, an allegation Tehran denies.
Officials at Karzai’s office declined to discuss Ahmadinejad’s latest speech.
Mozhda believes Karzai may be reserving comment because he is wary of provoking Iran into open support for resistance to his government in western Afghanistan, where the two countries share a border nearly 1,000 km long.
US officials may share this concern, Mozhda added.
“The Americans, too, agree with Hamid Karzai’s soft policy on Iran because they do not want tensions to expand,” he said.
Some Afghan analysts believe Iran is already heavily involved in a proxy struggle against the US in Afghanistan. Iranian-US ties have remained severed since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and tensions are rising over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria claimed Iran was providing significant support to the Taleban and allied groups and had spies at high levels of government and parliament.
“This front has been established and is effectively in operation,” he added.
Oria said that despite Ahmadinejad’s comments, Iran may be happy to see NATO troops bogged down in Afghanistan where they continue to be worn down by insurgents.
On the streets of Kabul, some accused Ahmadinejad of undermining Afghan sovereignty, while others shared his concern about foreign troops.
University student Nurullah said the Iranian leader had no right to weigh in on Afghan affairs.
“We are an independent country with our own president. We can tell the Americans and NATO whatever we want to on our own,” he said.
Nurullah said Karzai was unable to stand up to Ahmadinejad because he had accepted Iranian funding.
The Afghan president admitted in October 2010 that his chief of staff collected “bags of money” containing hundreds of thousands of euros from the Iranian government each year, according to The Guardian. Karzai told a press conference that the money was used to pay his office expenses, and that he was grateful for the support.
Hussein Ali, a construction worker, told IWPR that if Iran really cared about Afghanistan, it should treat the Afghan refugees it hosts better, and stop blocking fuel supplies during the winter.
Others, however, believe Iran’s criticism of the NATO presence is valid.
Masuma, a schoolteacher, said US troops had killed large numbers of Afghan civilians over the past decade, including the 17 shot dead by an American soldier in Kandahar province on March 11.
“Iranians, Americans and Pakistanis are all the same to us,” she said. “None of them has ever refrained from oppressing the Afghans.”
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 428.