Monday, August 6, 2007

Afghan president counters US rhetoric on Iranian role

AFP - WASHINGTON: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a key US ally, contradicted US assessments of the threat posed by Iran and insisted in an interview aired Sunday that Tehran played a beneficial role in his region. "So far, Iran has been a helper and a solution," Karzai told CNN on the eve of a visit here Sunday to meet with President George W. Bush for talks on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

"Iran has been a supporter of Afghanistan, in the peace process that we have and the fight against terror, and the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan," said Karzai, who became president with US backing in 2002.

His remarks differed markedly from the US stance, which sees Iran as a major menace that bankrolls terrorists, supplies arms to insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, and seeks to develop nuclear weapons.

The position was reiterated on Sunday by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she defended the decision to sell tens of billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to thwart Iran.

"I don't think anybody doubts that Iran constitutes a major challenge, security challenge, to our friends, our allies, and therefore to our interests in the Gulf region," Rice said.

But asked about US suggestions that Iranian weaponry was being funneled into Afghanistan, where Taliban fundamentalists were mounting a reinvigorated insurgency six years after their ouster, Karzai was noncommittal.

"We have had reports of the kind you just mentioned. We are looking into these reports," he said in the interview conducted Saturday.

He added that Afghanistan and Iran had "very, very good, very, very close relations, thanks in part also to an understanding of the US in this regard."

"We will continue to have good relations with Iran. We will continue to resolve issues, if there are any, to arise," Karzai said.

Also interviewed on CNN, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded to Karzai's comments by offering that Iran was "playing both sides of the street in Afghanistan."

"I think they're doing some things to help the Afghan government," said Gates, who just returned from a Mideast tour, adding: "I think they're also doing things to help the Taliban, including providing weapons."

Karzai also said that he would do everything to help free 21 South Korean missionaries short of actions that would encourage more hostage-taking.

Asked whether he would negotiate with the Taliban kidnappers to secure the release of the Koreans, Karzai said: "We will try everything to have them released safely and in security.

"We will do everything other than encouraging hostage-taking and terrorism to have them released," he added.

Karzai said the kidnappers, who seized the 23 South Korean church aid workers on July 19 and have killed two of them to try to force the government to release Taliban prisoners, mainly foreigners.