Monday, December 9, 2013
Afghan Leader for Closer Iran Ties
During a one-day trip to meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, President Hamid Karzai not only got a chance to reach out to a neighbor, but also to tweak the Western allies he has been at loggerheads with in recent weeks.
While Mr. Karzai and his staff have repeatedly said the intent is eventually to sign the bilateral security pact with the United States, allowing an American troop presence beyond the 2014 withdrawal deadline, Mr. Karzai has also added conditions before he signs it. Both American and Afghan officials see the chances of a completed deal by year’s end as basically dead, despite a recent vote by an assembly of Afghan leadership figures instructing Mr. Karzai to sign it.
Now, with the deadlock continuing, Mr. Karzai has publicly focused on bolstering regional ties. In addition to the Iran trip, he recently met with Prime Minister Nawaz Shari of Pakistan, and in coming days is to travel to India.
And while he has not explicitly been seeking an endorsement of refusal to sign the American security deal, he still received one on Sunday. President Rouhani, who is in the midst of delicate nuclear negotiations with Western nations, explicitly said he viewed the continuing presence of foreign forces in the region as a danger.
“We are concerned about the tensions arising from the presence of foreign forces in the region and believe that all foreign forces should exit the region and Afghanistan’s security should be ceded to the people of that country,” Mr. Rouhani said.
Mr. Rouhani’s statement was a bit of a departure from the official Iranian line on Afghan deals with the United States. In general, Iranian officials, while expressing discomfort with the American troop presence next door, have stated publicly and repeatedly that Afghanistan is a sovereign country able to sign pacts with any other nation.
In describing the mutual deal that Iran and Afghanistan will now explore, Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, described it as a “pact of friendship and cooperation,” much like understandings that Afghanistan has signed with India, France and Italy.
While such pacts are to some extent symbolic, they provide the basis for more extensive involvement. For instance, India is providing intensive training for Afghan military personnel in counterinsurgency techniques, is training members of the Afghan civil service, and has made room for several thousand Afghan students in its universities.
“This pact will include political, security cooperation and economic development,” Mr. Faizi said.
Since trade with Iran is still constrained by international sanctions because of the country’s nuclear program, it is unclear what kind of economic cooperation would be possible. And, while the United States gave limited short-term sanction relief to Iran as part of the deal reached last month in Geneva, there was no overall lifting of the sanctions.
The two presidents, as well as the Iranian foreign minister, also discussed problems faced by Afghans in Iran, including peremptory deportations, limits on visas and difficulties obtaining residence permits. Officials said the Iranian leadership agreed to work closely with the Afghan Foreign Ministry to improve the situation.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, there at least two million undocumented Afghans in Iran, beyond the 800,000 officially registered. Most are there seeking better economic circumstances, though they often face arbitrary abuse.
With such issues in common, Mr. Karzai’s outreach to Mr. Rouhani seemed at least in part a recognition that the United States and European countries are far away and that Afghanistan, for better or worse, has to deal its powerful neighbors.
“Our relations with Iran will not effect our relations with the United States,” Mr. Faizi said. “We need to enhance our relationships with our neighbors because these are the countries we have our future with.”