Tehranophobia

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The Guardian/UK

Tehranophobia

On Monday, the Iranophobia of US president George Bush was once again on display. The occasion was the joint press conference he gave at his Camp David resort along with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.

Contradicting Karzai's statement in a CNN interview on Sunday that Iran was "a helper and a solution" to his country, Bush urged him to be "very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence there in Afghanistan is a positive force".

Such a statement could only come from someone ignorant of the recent history of Tehran's relationship with its eastern neighbour.

Long before 9/11, the Iranian regime was at loggerheads with the Taliban who captured Kabul in September 1996. As orthodox Sunnis of the Hanafi code, the Taliban held Shias in low esteem, and banned their annual ritual of Ashura.

When the Taliban authorities held a dozen Iranian diplomats hostage in Mazar-e Sharif in the summer of 1998, relations between the two neighbours deteriorated to the point when a war between them seemed imminent. In the end cool heads prevailed. Iran withdrew the revolutionary guard troops it had amassed along the Afghan-Iranian border.

Following 9/11, as the Bush administration prepared to attack the Taliban, the Iranians shared intelligence with it surreptitiously.

At their urging, Ismail Khan, the anti-Taliban Afghan leader based in the Iranian city of Mashhad, along with his fighters, coordinated his attack on the Taliban in western Afghanistan with the Pentagon's campaign in the north and the east. Ismail Khan's militia captured Herat, an important city near the Iranian border.

At the international conference held in Bonn, Germany, in late December 2001, Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, actively co-operated with the Americans to install Hamid Karzai as the leader of the post-Taliban Afghanistan.

At the subsequent international donors' gathering, in Tokyo, Iran pledged $500m aid to Afghanistan over five years. Unlike many other nations at the Tokyo conference, it has fulfilled its initial promise. It has been involved in several infrastructure and health care projects, particularly in western Afghanistan.

In 2003, when Ismail Khan, an ethnic Tajik, refused to send an envoy to Kabul when Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, was formally installed as president, it was the Iranian government which persuaded him to fly his son for the inaugural ceremony. In return, Karzai appointed Khan's son as a cabinet minister.

Furthermore, ever since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the Iranian regime has been battling the Afghan drug dealers who use Iran as a transit route for shipping their products to Europe. In the course of hundreds of fire fights between the smugglers and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (charged with monitoring the national borders), a few thousand guards have lost their lives.

The anti-narcotic campaign by Iran, which has continued since the overthrow of the Taliban in December 2001, has been praised not only by the Karzai government but also by the UN.

However, given Bush's deep-seated aversion towards the Islamic Republic, it was unlikely that a brief history of Iran's anti-narcotic campaign was conveyed to him during the "more than a fair amount of time" he spent with Karzai discussing the fact that Afghanistan accounted for 95% of the world's poppy production used to produce heroin.

Overall, in the light of the recent history of the region, Karzai's description of Iran as "a helper and a solution" of Afghanistan was rooted in facts.

By contrast, Bush damaged his already low credibility in foreign affairs when he went on to claim that Iran had a government "that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon" ".

This statement is false. On September 12 2004, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei issued a fatwa (religious decree) that it was "un-Islamic" to use an atom bomb.

In his Friday prayer sermon on November 5 2004, Khamanei declared that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam" and for "our believing nation", and added: "They accuse us of pursuing nuclear weapons program. I am telling them as I have said before that we are not even thinking about nuclear weapons." (See Middle East International , Issue December 4 2004.)

But then again, in George Bush the world is dealing with a politician who prides himself on acting on gut feeling - rather than facts, expertise or historical experience.

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