Afghanistan

Karzai Says His Office Gets Cash From Iran

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai brushed off news reports that one of his top aides has been receiving bags of cash from Iran. In fact, he says that is normal practice and that he also accepts money from the U.S.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR news, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Afghanistan's president brushed off news reports that one of his top aides has been receiving bags of cash from Iran. But Hamid Karzai did not deny the reports. Instead, he said taking the money is normal practice, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A day after a front page New York Times article suggested that Iran seems to be literally buying influence in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai told reporters that the Iranians are just being neighborly.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): It's a relationship between neighbors, and it will go on. And we will continue to ask for cash help from Iran.

KELEMEN: The New York Times report says the president's chief of staff receives millions of dollars a year from Iran to buy off Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders, and even Taliban commanders.

President Karzai says the Iranian money is used to pay expenses in his office. He says Iran gives about $900,000 once or twice a year. And he insists it's all above board.

Pres. KARZAI: This is nothing hidden. We are grateful for the Iranian help in this regard. The United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices.

KELEMEN: Bags of it, he says.

Pres. KARZAI: It does give bags of money, yes.

Unidentified Man: Really?

Pres. KARZAI: Yes, it does. And that's all the same.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says he can't rule out the possibility that some cash could be exchanging hands. And he says that certainly happened in the early stages of the conflict. But Crowley says most U.S. aid is now provided electronically.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Department of State): The vast, vast, vast majority of that is now, you know, flows through institutions of the Afghan government, or through our international partners.

KELEMEN: Crowley says U.S. money is meant to help Afghanistan build up its government, but he raised doubts about Iranian assistance.

Mr. CROWLEY: We remain skeptical of Iran's motives given its history of playing a destabilizing role with its neighbors.

KELEMEN: A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, says Iran and the U.S. have actually cooperated in the past in Afghanistan. He sees this dispute over aid as an old game.

Mr. RONALD NEUMANN: (President, American Academy of Diplomacy): It is true that they pay a lot of money. They also make threats. It's, you know, it's been going on for 2,000 years. I don't think you get a bought agent. I think that's a great misconception. They buy influence. We buy influence in a sense with all our aid and with our military.

KELEMEN: Neumann, who's president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, adds that Afghanistan does actually need cash.

Mr. NEUMANN: This is an oriental court and it dispenses money, and everybody expects it to dispense money in Afghanistan. One of the problems Karzai has had from the beginning is that people expect a government in Afghanistan to be able to do various things for people, both officials and individuals, on virtually a cash basis. And if the government has no cash, it can't do it.

KELEMEN: But that sort of money flow in Kabul also increases U.S. concerns about corruption.

Michele Kelemen, NPR news, Washington.

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