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Iran Promises Aid To Afghanistan

In the first such visit in 40 years, Iran's president came to Afghanistan on Tuesday with a promise of $500 million in aid and a strong appeal to the new Kabul government to crack down on the Afghan opium that has hooked millions of Iranian addicts.

President Mohammad Khatami also had strong words for American critics who contend Iran has done little in the war on terrorism.

"We are victims of terrorism," he told reporters. "We have longer experience than the Americans in fighting terrorism."

Some U.S. officials accuse Iran of having allowed al Qaeda fugitives to cross through its territory since the ouster of the Taliban and their al Qaeda terrorist allies in Afghanistan.

But officials in Saudi Arabia said last weekend the Iranians had turned over 16 al Qaeda suspects to them. Khatami confirmed such deportations to Saudi Arabia and other countries, a move that may benefit the U.S. anti-terror effort through intelligence gained from Saudi or U.S. interrogations.

"Even if we had just a little suspicion, we delivered them to their countries, and not just Saudi Arabia," Khatami told reporters.

Asked at a Pentagon press conference how he interpreted the news, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "With respect to the terrorists that they say they have turned in, they've turned none in to us."

Rumsfeld has on several occasions during the war in Afghanistan charged that Iran is letting al Qaeda members to escape to safety through its territory. And two terrorist suspects captured by naval forces in a U.S.-led ship interdiction last month were coming from Iran, officials said at the time.

"They have permitted al Qaeda to enter their country. They are permitting al-Qaida to be present in their country today," Rumsfeld said Tuesday. "And it may very well be that they, for whatever reason, have turned over some people to other countries, but they've not turned any to us.

Rumsfeld said Khatami's visit to Afghanistan is "probably a useful thing."

The Iranian leader criticized the U.S. approach to the "war on terror," however, saying Washington was acting unilaterally when the global endeavor should be conducted under the United Nations. "Fighting terrorism should not mean imposing the will of one country unilaterally on other countries of the world," he said.

The Iranian president, whose nation was branded part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush, ironically found himself shielded by U.S. bodyguards on his Kabul visit.

American special forces soldiers in civilian clothes, the main security element for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Iranian security men as they shadowed the smiling, black-turbaned Khatami and Karzai during the Iranian's nine-hour visit to Kabul.

Iran has deep historical, cultural and linguistic ties to its poorer eastern neighbor Afghanistan, and its government was a key supporter of the northern alliance resistance to the 1996-2001 Taliban regime here, which Khatami referred to derisively as the "government of ignorance."

Khatami reported to the Afghans that the Iranian parliament last week approved a $50-million first-year installment on a promised $500 million in Iranian aid for Afghan reconstruction. Twenty-three years of war have left Afghan roads, communications, agriculture and industry in ruins.

During an official visit to Iran in February, Karzai called Iranians "brothers" and asked for the Islamic Republic's help in reconstruction of his war-ravaged country.

Iran is also host to an estimated 1.5 million Afghan refugees who fled 23 years of occupation and civil conflict.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has voiced concern that many refugees were under pressure from Tehran to return, although Iranian officials have denied this saying that voluntary repatriation was accelerating.

Among other things, the Iranians are rebuilding the 75-mile highway from the western Afghan city of Herat to the Iranian border; granting 2,000 Iranian university scholarships to Afghan students; planning electricity supplies for Herat province; and donating 50 city buses to Kabul.

"We feel obliged to do anything we can to strengthen the ties between the two countries," Khatami said at the news conference, with Karzai sitting beside him.

The Iranian cleric-politician brought with him the chief of Iran's national police to talk with Afghan counterparts about the traffic in Afghan opium, the raw material for heroin.

By the late 1990s, Afghanistan had become the world's largest producer of opium. In 2000, however, the Taliban banned cultivation of the opium poppy, and U.N. and U.S. drug experts confirmed the ban was almost totally effective in the 2001 growing season.

The U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in late 2001 spurred Afghan farmers to replant opium, however, and a new ban announced in April by Karzai's government has led to destruction of only a fraction of the huge crop.

Khatami brought up the subject himself to reporters, signaling that Iran will pressure the transitional government here to crack down on an illicit industry that is Afghanistan's biggest money-earner, supporting hundreds of thousands of people on Afghan farms.

"Definitely the cultivation of poppy should be replaced by something else useful or helpful," the Iranian said. When his turn came, Afghan President Karzai did not address the explosive issue.

More than 2 million Iranians are believed to be addicted to heroin or opium, products that are shipped relatively easily - in convoys of dozens of pickup trucks at times - across the huge, open desert border between the two nations.

Khatami also rejected American criticism that Iran is trying to manipulate the internal politics of a fractious Afghanistan for its own benefit. "Everybody knows we are not trying to interfere in Afghanistan," he said.

Khatami made no specific mention of the debate raging in the United States over whether it should attack Iraq and overthrow the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

But he hinted any such attack would be counterproductive. Iran fears that a military campaign against Iraq would set a precedent and lead to a bid by the United States to seek a change of regime in Tehran also.

"Those who have more power have more responsibility for establishing peace in the world," Khatami said.

"We hope to see a change in America's policy for the sake of America and the world."

In a significant sidelight to the Iranian's visit, Khatami and Karzai were accompanied at the presidential palace welcoming ceremony by Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, the Herat provincial governor whose close ties to Iran have worried both Karzai and his American backers.