- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reports emerged over the weekend that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was accepting “bags of cash” from Iran. Tehran responded with its usual red-faced bluster: “The embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran strongly dismisses [these] false, ridiculous and insulting allegations.” The story amounted to “baseless speculations” spread by the press to “confuse public opinion and damage the strong ties between the governments and nations of the Islamic republics of Afghanistan and Iran.”

A half-hour later, President Karzai confirmed the story. “It is official and by my order,” he said, noting that he had instructed former Ambassador to Iran Umar Daudzai literally to be the bagman. After the press conference, Iran clarified its earlier confrontational statement, without apparent irony, saying Tehran is “deeply concerned about Afghanistan’s stability, and has given much assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

“We are grateful for the Iranians’ help in this regard,” Mr. Karzai said Monday, adding, “the United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices.” That’s an understatement. The admitted payouts from Iran are not large, under $1 million once or twice a year. Compare this to the approximately $60 billion in U.S. military and civilian expenses in Afghanistan, which is roughly triple Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. One could also compare the Iranian offering to the $3 billion that has been flown out of the country to private accounts over the last three years. As bribe money goes, Iran’s money bags are small change.

We praise Mr. Karzai for his frankness, but he seems oblivious to the perception problem that the mullahs’ payments create. Americans value old-fashioned notions like loyalty and countries taking sides, especially when U.S. troops are fighting and dying for someone else’s independence. Mr. Karzai, though, sees no problem with a little Iranian discretionary funding and is trying to balance impermanent friends against permanent interests.

Iran has in fact been spending many millions to further its interests in Afghanistan. Tehran has long funneled aid to the Shiite western parts of the country, and the area around Herat - not far from the Iranian border - has benefited greatly from Iranian largesse. In Kabul, Tehran underwrites the efforts of rabid pro-Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, who runs a madrassa and is a fixture on Iranian-sponsored Tamadun TV. Mr. Mohseni’s messages are predictably anti-Western and advance the most stringent Islamist doctrines.

Most significantly, Iran gives safe haven and medical assistance to Taliban fighters. It pays bounties to insurgents who kill troops or Afghan government workers and supplies them with the same deadly improvised explosive devices it gave to Iraqi insurgents. Recent reports indicate that Iran is also training the Taliban in the use of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons that could have devastating effects on the International Security Assistance Force’s counterinsurgency effort.

Mr. Karzai may think that accepting Tehran’s coin is a small thing, but at a time when casualties are increasing and more Americans are losing faith in the war effort, it’s time for Afghanistan to start saying “no, thanks” to Iran.