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Iran President Arrives in Afghanistan - 2002-08-13

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami arrives in Afghanistan Tuesday. Mr. Khatami will meet his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai, during the 24-hour visit. The Iranian-Afghan relationship presents thorny political problems for both the Afghan leader and the United States.

President Karzai has a delicate balancing act to perform during Mr. Khatami's brief visit. Mr. Karzai is expected to thank Iran for its help in ousting the Taleban from power. But he is also expected to ask his Iranian counterpart to refrain from giving direct support to a powerful warlord whose fiefdom abuts the Afghan-Iranian border.

Mr. Karzai is also expected to defend his government's close ties with the United States, whose presence in the region is unnerving to Iran. Afghanistan is caught in the middle of one of the most antagonistic relationships on the world stage, that of Iran and the United States.

Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the non-governmental Council on Foreign Relations, says the United States needs to recognize that, as Afghanistan's neighbor, Iran has a legitimate interest in what goes on in its neighborhood and that Iran should not be treated as a hostile competitor.

"Iran has a long history of involvement in Afghanistan for the obvious reason of location. And the key for the U.S. is to try to figure out how we're going to manage Iranian interest in Afghanistan, while at the same time making it clear that the goal is for a centralized state," says Ms. Bronson. "So I don't think that Iran will ever give up all interest in Afghanistan, nor should we expect them to. The goal really needs to be to make them a productive member of trying to bolster the centralization of the Karzai government, and maintaining good neighborly relations."

The Afghan government came to power in large part due to U.S. influence, and in return has firmly committed itself to backing the Bush Administration's anti-terrorist efforts. But Afghanistan is a land-locked nation crunched between Iran and Pakistan, and needs to be on good terms with its neighbors.

Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out that Iran helped the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Taleban and al-Qaida. But, she says, there were also indications that some al-Qaida operatives sought and got, sanctuary in Iran after the Taleban were ousted.

"I think that the United States has been concerned about some aspects of Iranian behavior after the Afghan war, where there seemed to be some confusion on the border, possibly allowing transit to people who were suspected of being al-Qaida members," says Ms. Kipper. "But during the Afghan war, Iran was very helpful to the United States, in many ways, a lot of it unannounced." But now, say analysts, the game has changed, and Iran is very nervous about the increased U.S. role in the region around Iran.

Rachel Bronson says it was that shelter of suspected al-Qaida operatives, coupled with Iran's alleged role in sending a shipful of arms to the Palestinian Authority, that caused President Bush to include Iran in his now-famous "axis of evil" speech.

With his central government still weak, Mr. Karzai wants to gradually assert the control of the Kabul government in the countryside, including in the province of Herat. Herat is controlled by warlord and governor Ismail Khan who, it is reported, has received aid and arms from Iran. But Rachel Bronson says Iran is not likely to want to sever its long-term relationship with Ismail Khan. "I think that they're going to try to maintain some influence there with Ismail Khan. And I think that whether they allow Karzai to, as you say, control all matters in Afghanistan, depends on what Karzai's going to do," says Ms. Bronson. "So that's probably very much what the discussions will be about what direction the Afghan government is going, and probably, most importantly, what their long-term expectations are in terms of U.S.-Afghanistan relations. That's going to be key for Khatami when he goes over there."

Presidents Khatami and Karzai are also expected to discuss how to repatriate and care for the millions of Afghan refugees who fled to Iran to escape the Taleban.