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Afghanistan Juggles Relationships With US, Iran


With Tehran's nuclear programs the subject of fierce dispute in the United Nations, Afghanistan finds itself caught between its biggest supporter - the United States - and its influential neighbor - Iran. Washington and several other countries accuse Iran of building nuclear weapons, and are advocating stern U.N. action against Tehran. VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand recently visited Kabul and reports that Afghanistan, while mindful of the U.S. position, needs to remain on good terms with Tehran.

In Kabul, the international war of words over Iran is being carefully monitored.

Washington says Iran is a global threat and is trying to build a nuclear arsenal. Iran insists it is using its nuclear technology for strictly civilian purposes and accuses Washington of planning an Iraq-style invasion. Iran's nuclear programs are now being discussed by the U.N. Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions on Tehran.

Afghan officials insist their country takes no sides between its powerful patron, the United States, and its neighbor, Iran.

Javed Ludden, chief of staff for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, says Kabul hopes to see a diplomatic solution to the standoff, but in the meantime will keep working with both countries.

"Over the past four years, Afghanistan has had very friendly and close ties with both the United States and Iran and we will have hopefully no issues that separate us," he said.

Ludden says U.S. troops and economic support are critical to Afghanistan's development. A U.S.-led coalition ousted the former Taleban government in 2001, and support from Washington has helped the Karzai government establish itself and begin rebuilding the impoverished, war-torn country.

But the country also depends on Iran for trade and for help in maintaining domestic stability. He and other officials say that no matter what other governments think, maintaining good relations with Iran must remain a priority for Afghanistan.

"With regards to Iran, it is, you know, it is our neighbor. We do not choose our neighbors," said Ludden. "You can choose your friends but you do not choose your neighbors."

The two share a border stretching more than 1,000 kilometers and a rich cultural history.

Iran also is one of Afghanistan's most reliable trade partners. In addition, new agreements guarantee landlocked Afghanistan access to Iranian ports virtually tax-free.

Afghan officials and political analysts say if the United Nations imposes sanctions on Iran, Kabul would find itself in a tough position. If Kabul does not comply with sanctions, it could find itself facing pressure not only from the United States, but also from the United Nations, which has been instrumental in helping rebuild the country.

But complying with the sanctions would hurt Afghanistan's fragile economy, and anger its neighbor.

Abbas Waffa is a political analyst in Kabul and editor of the English language newspaper, Outlook Afghanistan. He says Afghanistan needs Iran; needs its ports and needs its business. There are also, he says, political concerns. Those include making sure that Afghanistan's Shi'ite Muslim minority community does not feel Iran is being treated unfairly.

"If Afghanistan decides to act as part of a coalition that's encircling Iran, that's going to have a domestic impact," said Samina Ahmed, an analyst in Pakistan for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit research organization. "There is a very vocal and politically mobile Shia minority in Afghanistan. They are a part of the political process. To have their own government sanction Iran, their fellow Shia, that would not be the way to go in their minds."

President Karzai also needs to avoid alienating Iran, which can influence Afghanistan's political scene.

Iran now supports the Afghan government, but a number of analysts say that support is conditional on how well the Afghan government protects its Shi'ite minority, who make up about 20 percent of the country - most of the rest of the population is Sunni.

There is a fear that Iran, if dissatisfied with the situation in Afghanistan, could influence Afghan Shi'ites to oppose the government or to support a violent insurgency that has plagued the country for four years.

Ahmed at the International Crisis Group says Kabul's Western allies must understand the position Afghanistan is in.

"Iran is Afghanistan's neighbor, and while there are major issues on the global stage, what we must be thinking of is how we stabilize this very fragile polity," she said.

That means, she suggests, that Kabul should not be forced to choose between essential Western support for its fragile democracy and stable relations with its neighbor.

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