By Mina Habib, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting –
KABUL, Afghanistan — Given the state of relations between Tehran and Washington, it should have come as no surprise when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for U.S. and NATO forces to withdraw immediately from Afghanistan and begin financing economic reconstruction of the country 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,” the president said. “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history will be punished.”
News reports said Ahmadinejad promised to provide technical and economic assistance to Kabul, including investment, health care and infrastructure projects.
While Ahmadinejad’s comments were largely ignored in Washington, they triggered a hostile reaction from members of the upper house of the Afghan parliament.
A statement issued by the 40-member Reform and Justice Group of the upper house accused Iran of wanting “to fuel war in this country once again and reduce it to ruins.” The group planned to issue a formal request that Iranian officials refrain from commenting on Afghanistan’s domestic affairs.
Amin Farjad, a counselor 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 U.S. and NATO presence, the main decision-makers are the people of Afghanistan and their representatives. However, others have a right to comment,” Farjad said.
The international troop presence is a worry to Iran and the rest of the region, he said. “We cannot remain indifferent to this presence because it poses security threats.” Farjad cited a U.S. surveillance drone captured by the Iranian military in December as an example of Iran’s justified concerns.
It’s not the first time that Ahmadinejad has denounced the presence of U.S. forces and called for their withdrawal.
For their part, NATO officials have accused Iran of providing weapons to the Taliban, an allegation Tehran denies.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who declined to comment on Ahmadinejad’s remarks, has his own complicated relationship with Iran.
In 2010, the Afghan president acknowledged that his office regularly received tens of thousands of dollars in cash from Iran, but insisted that there was nothing unusual in the payments.
“The government of Iran has been assisting us with five or six or seven hundred thousand euros once or twice every year; that is an official aid,” he told reporters at the time.
“We are grateful for the Iranian help in this regard. The United States is doing the same thing, they’re providing cash to some of our offices,” Karzai was quoted as saying.
Other analysts believe that Iran is delighted to see U.S. and NATO forces bogged down in the conflict with insurgents in Afghanistan, believing that the ongoing conflict makes it less likely that Washington would be willing to engage in yet another confrontation in the region.