- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2011

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Iran began delivering money to Afghan President Hamid Karzai as early as 2003, a former Afghan official says.

“It started in a sort of transparent manner when I was the foreign minister,” Abdullah Abdullah, now Afghanistan’s top opposition leader, said in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

“So it was during [Iranian] President [Mohammed] Khatami’s time, and President Khatami mentioned it to President Karzai, that ‘from my own office, I have a budget at my discretion. If you agree with it, I would like to give some money for your office.’ So it started that way.”

Mr. Abdullah, who served as foreign minister from 2001 to 2005, recalled the Iranian offer coming in 2003 or 2004. He said Mr. Karzai briefed his national security council on it and told him that he had “raised the issue” with U.S. officials.

“In the first year, it was twice or three times that this happened — each time, perhaps around $1 million,” Mr. Abdullah said of the Iranian payments to Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Karzai’s Iranian payments were first reported in October by the New York Times, which wrote that Mr. Khatami used the money to “pay Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders and even Taliban commanders to secure their loyalty.”

Mr. Abdullah said that Cabinet members also received a portion of the Iranian funds in the form of a “gift” each month that was four times as large as their official wages.

“Sometimes, in passing [Mr. Karzai] would say that this is from that money,” he said.

Mr. Karzai has publicly acknowledged the Iranian money, reportedly delivered as bags of cash, but said the process was “transparent.”

Current and former U.S. officials see Iran’s payments to Afghanistan’s government as a means of ensuring its influence in the war-torn country, noting the material support that Iranian authorities have provided to elements of the Taliban.

“We did not take the view that it is in the interest of Iran to destroy Afghanistan and to have massive turmoil and an ungoverned space of the Somalia variety,” said Elliot Abrams, who held various senior National Security Council positions during the George W. Bush administration.

“We thought Iran had mixed interests in Afghanistan. And looking back, that seems to be right. It hasn’t acted to create a Somalia there, but it has acted at the very least to undermine American influence and make our presence there, as in Iraq, as difficult and as costly as possible,” Mr. Abrams said.

Mr. Abdullah, who arrived in Washington on Sunday on a 10-day visit, was Mr. Karzai’s leading opponent in the 2009 presidential election, which some observers say was rigged. Under Western pressure, Mr. Karzai accepted a runoff, but Mr. Abdullah withdrew, saying he lacked confidence that a second vote would be fair.

He now leads Afghanistan’s largest opposition party, the Coalition for Change and Hope, and told The Times that he will run again against Mr. Karzai in the 2014 presidential election. “He knows that,” Mr. Abdullah said with a chuckle.

Citing Mr. Karzai’s decision to bypass parliament and discuss the issue of U.S. bases in a “loya jirga,” a council of tribal elders, Mr. Abdullah expressed concern that the president was looking to creating a self-serving precedent: “One day, he will call a loya jirga for extension of his tenure.”

Mr. Abdullah said he was confident that the U.S. could begin its scheduled withdrawal in July, but he said he did not know when, if ever, the last international forces would be able to leave.

“It’s difficult to give a timetable, but I’m absolutely sure that some sort of presence will be needed much beyond 2014,” he said, referring to NATO’s target date for Afghan authorities to assume full security control of their country.