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Iran aids Afghans as US frets

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is in Tehran for talks with Iran's government.

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In this Afghan city near the Iranian border, the streets are clean. Traffic lights and telephones function. Officials are paid, and very few weapons are on display. Welcome to Herat, the focal point of US accusations about Iranian meddling in Afghanistan.

The claims are one reason President Bush lists Iran as part of an "axis of evil." If true, they would threaten regional stability during a critical postwar time of rebuilding in Afghanistan.

Despite Iran's denials, the Bush administration seems intent on making sure Iran does not meddle. Before Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, left for Tehran yesterday, he met for several hours with US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr. Khalilzad says he briefed him on what the US wants: "normal relations between Afghanistan and Iran based on noninterference." He adds, though, that it's up to Mr. Karzai to choose to bring up the US objections.

The Iranian-backed governor of Herat, however, says Iran is doing nothing more nefarious than pursuing an anxious neighbor's interests. Although the US accuses Iran of providing weapons and cash to Ismail Khan to undermine the fragile US-backed Afghan government of Karzai, the warlord insists that Iran's intentions are noble enough.

"We expect that Iran will be a good neighbor and will help rebuild Afghanistan," says Governor Khan in an interview. "After 23 years of war, we don't need any weapons or ammunition from anyone."

Few doubt Iran's interest in Afghanistan: It has long battled drug-running on its border, it has for years played host to more than 2 million Afghan refugees, and after the murder of nine of its diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif in 1998, Iran nearly went to war against the Taliban regime.

Iran was instrumental with the US in creating the interim government in Bonn, Germany, that includes Khan's son, Mir Wais Sadiq. But Khan reportedly felt cheated by the Bonn deal. To overcome that initial reluctance, Iran sent a plane to carry Khan to the Kabul inauguration ceremony.

American claims of meddling are "baseless," Iranian Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi said last week. "How is it possible for us to weaken the government we helped to create?"

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