The meeting's official proceedings dealt with regional economic cooperation, but this meeting in western Afghanistan, which depends economically on Iran, provided an opportunity for staking out positions on regional tensions. During the meeting an as-yet unidentified suicide bomber attacked the homecoming motorcade of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, killing 139 people and threatening the political transition negotiated between Bhutto and military ruler Pervez Musharraf with the support (or at the urging) of the U.S. The meeting also coincided with the resignation of Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. Larijani's replacement by a junior ally of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad just before a key meeting with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana made a negotiated settlement of Iran's nuclear issue even less likely. As the meeting was ending, U.S. Vice President Cheney told a conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a think-tank closely associated with the "pro-Israel" lobby): "The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences." Calling Iran "the world's most active state sponsor of terror," Cheney said, "Our country and the entire international community cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its most aggressive ambitions."
President Karzai played a balancing act. Hosting this conference in Herat pleased Iran, which had consistently urged that ECO, based in Tehran, should play a central role in regional economic cooperation for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, over objections of the U.S. In his speech opening the conference, Karzai gave a nod to US concerns, which Kabul shares:
We, the Muslims, must show the true image of Islam to the world and this will be impossible unless we eliminate terrorists where ever they are and fight them collectively.In a bilateral meeting with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki, however, Karzai emphasized the friendly ties between the two nations in a seeming rebuff to the U.S. position. Karzai had done so in the U.S. in August. Interviewed on CNN, Karzai characterized Iran as a "helper" of Afghanistan, a characterization with which President Bush took issue at a press availability after the two leaders' August 7 meeting in Camp David.
In Herat Mottaki appeared self confident. He announced an additional $600,000 in aid for Afghanistan. In answer to a journalist's question, he stated:
The people of Afghanistan will never allow America to use Afghanistan against any other country. This our belief, this is our trust.Referring to the "people" implied that Iran might rely not solely on the Afghan government, but on its direct relations with the "people." Mottaki appeared to gloat over the U.S.'s situation:
Simultaneously, Tehran announced how it would respond to a U.S. attack:
Mottaki added that the United States had exhausted itself with the war in Iraq and "is not in a position to create another conflict in our region."
"Americans, not based on our statements ... but based on statements by American politicians have been defeated in Iraq," the foreign minister said.
"In the first minute of an invasion by the enemy, 11,000 rockets and cannons will be fired at enemy bases," said Mahmoud Chaharbaghi, a brigadier general in the elite Revolutionary Guards.
"This volume and speed of firing would continue," added Chaharbaghi, who is commander of artillery and missiles of the Guards' ground forces.
These "bases" are those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kabul has also received information that the Iranian government had informed its ambassadors that though Afghanistan is a "friend," one must sacrifice even friends when survival is at stake. This is a reference to Tehran's belief that the goal of U.S. policy is the overthrow of the Iranian regime, not simply the termination of uranium enrichment.
The attack was hardly a surprise. Militants see Bhutto's return to Pakistani politics as a Western-backed coup against Islamists in Pakistan, akin to the arrival in the Afghan capital, Kabul, of the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Militant leader Baitullah Mehsud had instructed pro-al-Qaeda cells in Karachi to kill her for three major offenses against the Islamists, which he listed as:Baitullah Mehsud, however, states he "had nothing to do with it," and many of Bhutto's supporters suspect that elements of the Pakistan military and intelligence apparatus were involved. Bhutto had previously told the Sunday Telegraph:
- She is the only opposition politician who supported the military attack earlier this year on Islamabad's Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, and she coninues to condemn the Lal Masjid ideologues; - She has stated that she would allow incursions by US forces into Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden; - She has stated that she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to question Dr A Q Khan, the former leading nuclear scientist accused of passing Pakistani nuclear technology to anti-Western countries.
We need a security service that is professional in its approach, which rises above ties of religious or political sentiment. I have strong reservations about some of the people still operating within the intelligence services, and we need reforms to get rid of them.Bhutto was referring to those in the ISI who support the Taliban and even al-Qaida. Her dismissal in 1990 of General Hamid Gul as Director of the ISI was key to the army's decision to oust her that year and defeat her in rigged elections. Military appointments and policy toward India and Afghanistan are considered by the Pakistan army to be off limits to civilian officials. Now, as in 1989-1990, it is likely that Bhutto's negotiations with the army (carried out though the current ISI director) also focus on this issue. Maintaining "reserve areas" of military control is a frequent demand of military institutions trying to negotiate their extrication from direct rule. By announcing her intention to clean up the ISI, Bhutto promised Kabul and Washington that she would carry out the policies they have been asking for, while threatening the most sensitive prerogatives of the Pakistani military.
Such is the region in which Vice-President Cheney aims to impose "serious consequences" on Iran if it moves toward acquiring the capability to manufacture the nuclear weapons that Pakistan already has. Pakistan, of course, is likely to have been a source of the technology used by Iran for uranium enrichment. But Pakistan is the U.S.'s most important non-NATO ally, while Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. The views from Washington and Herat could not be more different.