- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

NEW YORK U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will ask the Iranian government to support, not undermine, the new interim administration in Afghanistan when he visits Tehran tomorrow.

The U.S. government repeatedly has suggested that Iran is harboring al Qaeda and Taliban members, either so they can elude capture or even destabilize the fledgling administration in Kabul.

Tehran has denied the charges, and a senior U.N. official yesterday said he could find no substantiation.

"I don't have any concrete evidence of Iranian involvement," said Francesc Vendrell, the deputy special envoy for Afghanistan. He told reporters in Kabul yesterday that he had spoken with Afghan warlords about the issue, and they told him they wouldn't cooperate with Tehran.

Ismail Khan, for example, "told me he had not fought against foreign occupation for 20 years in order to allow back-door influence," Mr. Vendrell said. "I have to say that in my discussions with a lot of senior Afghans, I have got the feeling that this issue of Iranian interference has been exaggerated."

But the United Nations, among other observers, remains concerned about the ability of neighboring countries to destabilize the new Afghan government.

"We've made a good start but there are many hurdles ahead of us, and I hope we can count on sustained international support," Mr. Annan told reporters yesterday in Islamabad. "Sustained not only in terms of financial and material terms but also political and moral support as we move forward with our attempts to reconstruct Afghanistan."

In his reports to the Security Council, Mr. Annan repeatedly has warned against allowing international power games to be played in such a volatile region.

During his one-day visit to Tehran, Mr. Annan is scheduled to meet with President Mohammed Khatami, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khameini, the spiritual leader of Iran.

Mr. Annan has been on a whirlwind visit to the region since the conclusion of the Afghanistan donor's conference in Tokyo on Tuesday.

He spent Wednesday and yesterday in Islamabad meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

He is expected to be in Kabul for less than 10 hours today, for meetings with interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and the commanders of the International Security Assistance Force. He also will visit a girls' school.

The Iran leg of Mr. Annan's seven-day Afghanistan-themed trip was added hastily earlier this week, said U.N. officials, when it became clear that the Indian government did not want to discuss Kashmir and growing tensions along the Pakistani border.

U.N. officials portrayed the Iranian stop as a routine visit to a neighboring nation to build up support for the nascent Afghan government.

Governments this week pledged about $4.6 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, not quite half of the $10 billion the United Nations estimated would be needed over the next decade.

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