Iranian MPs Query Cash-For-Karzai
by AMIN MEHRPOUR in Tehran
06 Nov 2010 22:01
The story was broken by the New York Times in an October report claiming that Ahmadinejad took two suitcases full of cash on a March 2010 trip to Afghanistan, giving one to Karzai's chief of staff Umar Daudzai and gifting the other to the Afghan presidential palace. A further payment came when Karzai visited Iran in August, and Feda Hossein Maleki, Tehran's envoy to Kabul, gave a bulging plastic bag filled with euro bills to Daudzai on the plane.
The first reaction from the Iranian embassy in Kabul was outright denial, describing the New York Times story as baseless rumor and comic media speculation.
But Karzai later confirmed his office had received Iranian money, insisting the payments were transparent and above board. Daudzai was "receiving the money on my instructions," he said.
Karzaid said Afghanistan received cash payments from "various friendly countries," although he named only the United States and Iran. Iranian assistance, he said, amounted to between 500,000 and 700,000 euro once or twice a year, and was intended to fund his office.
Reacting to Karzai's comments, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs rejected comparisons between U.S. aid and Iranian gifts of money.
"We provide assistance and aid to the Afghan government through a fairly well-established developmental aid program," he said. "We're not in the big-bags-of-cash business."
The same day as Gibbs made his comments, October 26, the matter was raised in the Iranian parliament, the Majles.
The seven legislators from the minority reformist bloc put a series of hard questions to Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, "What was the annual amount of these contributions over the past five years? What was the legal basis for these payments, and which authority approved this aid and its amount? Is the Iranian government aware of the purpose and aims to which the president of Afghanistan puts this aid? Where, in the annual budget legislation, are the revenue sources of this aid shown?"
In response to these question, foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters that what the government was doing was legal and nothing out of the ordinary.
In fact, he said, "assistance to Afghanistan started in the Khatami era," referring to reformist president Mohammad Khatami who was in power from 1997 to 2005.
In an editorial for the Iranian Diplomacy website, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, who served under Khatami as ambassador in Afghanistan, did not say what form aid took in those days, but insisted the arrangement was approved by the Majlis.
Iranian state-run television carried a comment piece justifying the somewhat unorthodox practice of handing over money in cash.
"The West wants such aid to be distributed via the institutions it has set up, or whose presence in Afghanistan it has paved the way for. But since much of this foreign aid is misappropriated by those institutions before it reaches the people, Iran has always demanded that these intermediaries be cut out."
Neither this comment nor the explanations offered by the foreign ministry really addressed whether it was appropriate to be delivering sacks full of banknotes, or where exactly the money came from.
At a 2002 donor conference held in Tokyo, Iran pledged $560 million for reconstruction work in post-Taliban Afghanistan, a commitment which the government underpinned by sending a corresponding bill to the Majles.
In 2005, Iran pledged another $154 million, and at an international donor meeting in Paris in 2008, it offered a further $50 million.
Despite this, there are no transparent reports showing what actual disbursements were made to Afghanistan and how the money was spent.
A former Iranian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, summed up the nature of the current concerns, "What alarms lawmakers is that the Ahmadinejad administration has a reputation for breaking the law, for extravagance, and for a tendency to spend without receiving permission from the Majles."
Afghan parliamentarians have been asking about the money as well. Legislator Kabir Ranjbar was quoted in the Kabul daily Hasht-e Sobh as saying, "The manner in which these funds are being spent is in direct violation of Article 42 of the Afghan constitution... [which states that] all the revenues the government generates must be deposited in a single account. Has this [Iranian] money been deposited in this account?"
Mianeh has learned from an insider source that the seven Majles members who signed the motion querying the cash payments were quietly advised not to pursue the matter further, in order to avoid prejudicing Iran's national interest.
One of them, Qodratollah Alikhani, ignored this advice and gave a speech to parliament in which he accused Ahmadinejad of acting in violation of the Iranian constitution.
"Iranian aid to Afghanistan must be incorporated into the annual budget bill and must be official and open, not in cash and shrouded in secrecy," he said.
His comments prompted Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the parliamentary committee for national security and foreign policy, to warn him against making such statements from the rostrum.
Alikhani went further than questioning the cash-to-Afghanistan issue; he also said the sums of money that Iran gave in aid to other countries were also troubling. He gave as an example a recent statement by Ahmad Mousavi, Iran's ambassador in Damascus, to the effect that Tehran had set aside $5 billion for new development projects in Syria.
It is not the first time reformist lawmakers have raised the issue of foreign aid. In April 2009, they questioned a $300 million loan to Pakistan, citing Article 80 of the Iranian constitution, which requires that all loans and grants made by the government, whether at home or abroad, require prior Majles approval.
The Iranian authorities may get some small consolation from the knowledge that other governments have found it hard to track the money they pour into Afghanistan.
As the former diplomat pointed out, the first comprehensive audit of U.S. spending in Afghanistan since 2001, the findings of which were published in October, described a "confusing labyrinth" of expenditure in which proper records were not kept and it was difficult to identify where the money actually ended up.
Amin Mehrpour is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist based in Tehran.
Copyright © 2010 Mianeh