Iran President Visits Afghanistan
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Looking to forge closer ties with a friendlier regime across the border, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami arrived Tuesday for the first visit to Afghanistan by an Iranian head of state in 40 years.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeted Khatami at the airport and the two rode together to the presidential palace under heavy American and Iranian security. They were accompanied by Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, whose close ties to Iran have worried both Karzai and his American backers.
``We are hopeful for a brighter future for Afghanistan,″ Khatami said in a speech to the Afghan people shortly after arriving at the palace. ``I have warm gratitude and special respect for you, dear people of Afghanistan.″
Also in the entourage were Iranian police officials who planned to meet with their counterparts to discuss how to stem opium production and trafficking in Afghanistan.
By the late 1990s, Afghanistan had become by far the world’s largest producer of opium, the raw material of heroin. In 2000, the Taliban government imposed an effective ban on opium production but the U.S.-led overthrow of the former government has spurred the planting and harvesting of opium poppies again in the country.
The Iranian news agency said the visit was the first to Afghanistan by an Iranian head of state in 40 years. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi visited Kabul in 1962 in a failed attempt to mediate a dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Just last week the Iranian parliament approved $500 million in reconstruction aid for the war-shattered country. Iran also recently handed over 16 suspected al-Qaida fighters to Saudi Arabia at that country’s request.
The high-level visit and the promise of aid underscore Iran’s interest in reaching out to neighboring Afghanistan, which shares close ties of language, Islamic faith and culture, at a time when this country’s government is heavily dependent on the United States for its survival.
Iran was not on good terms with the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan and sheltered tens of thousands of refugees. The Iranians publicly endorsed the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida and cooperated with the United States in trying to limit the spread of narcotics from Afghanistan.
Still, Iran remains one of the countries President Bush has identified as belonging to the ``axis of evil″ that threatens global stability. Earlier this year, the United States criticized alleged Iranian interference in Afghan affairs and accused Tehran of trying to undermine the Karzai government.
U.S. intelligence officials have also complained that Iran has allowed some senior al-Qaida officials shelter or safe passage. Iranian officials have expressed concerns about the United States having too much influence over the new government in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Iranian and American security agents rode together in the convoy that accompanied Khatami from the airport to the palace. Armed Americans stood watch on rooftops overlooking the route.
Before departing from Tehran earlier Tuesday, Khatami told reporters that Afghans should not allow their independence to be compromised.
``All the different groups and tendencies in Afghanistan must think of that country’s pride and honor and, by benefiting from Islam’s teachings, they must not allow Afghanistan to become a victim of any power’s wishes,″ Khatami said.
``If any power is in Afghanistan, it must only strive to assist the establishment of peace and progress in the country,″ he added, according to a BBC translation of a report issued by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.