The media has been buzzing about the admission from both Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Iran that the latter passed the former bags of cash, apparently in euros.
The allegations were first brought to light by New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins. Filkins later confirmed the exchanges of cash with Karzai himself, who called the allegation defamation even as he admitted it was true.
But what exactly does the exchange of cash mean?
Iran has long been involved in post-Taliban Afghanistan. As Amb. James Dobbins recounts in his section of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, which was also published at Tehran Bureau, Iran’s relationship with the Northern Alliance allowed the December 2001 Bonn Conference to end successfully with the creation of an Afghani government. It was also Iran, says Dobbins, who represented the U.S. at the conference, and suggested adding language about elections to the interim Afghan constitution created in Bonn.
Most analysts seem to agree that the “bags of cash” pseudo-scandal only reinforces the notion that Iran and the U.S. share an interest in a stable Afghanistan, or at worst, that the cash handed over pales in comparison to what the U.S. throws around with Karzai unlikely to be beholden to Iranian demands.
“Worries about geopolitical bogeymen can overwhelm good sense,” writes Foreign Policy‘s Steve LeVine on his blog about oil geopolitics. “Just who is Tehran endangering by keeping Karzai lubricated with pocket change? For one, the fellows U.S. troops are fighting: the Taliban.”
“Today’s alarmism is partly over Karzai’s use of some of the Iran money to buy off Taliban leaders. To which one can rightly reply, So what? The strategic payoff is how power operates in Afghanistan,” he adds.
Michigan professor Juan Cole blogs that the revelation underscores several realities, among them “that the US and Iran are de facto allies in Afghanistan (in fact both of them are deeply opposed to the Taliban and their backers among hard line cells of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence).”
“US military spokesmen have sometimes attempted to make a case that Iran is helping the hyper-Sunni, Shiite-killing, anti-Karzai Taliban, which is not very likely to be true or at least not on a significant scale,” he continues. “The revelations of Tehran’s support for Karzai give credence to Iranian officials’ claims of having been helpful to NATO, since they both want Karzai to succeed.”
Even Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, doesn’t think the revelation is a big deal, despite underscoring the Karzai’s “venality”: “On the bright side, the Iranian money probably doesn’t influence Mr. Karzai’s policy or Afghan actions any more than, say, our money does,” she writes on a New York Times online symposium on the subject. “The Afghan president has always had a ‘strategy of tactics,’ playing one powerbroker off against another to make sure he stays afloat.”
Thought she concludes that the money might be intended to hasten a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Marlowe acknowledges the ‘bags of money’ don’t pose a great threat to the United States: “The bogyman of Iranian influence in Afghanistan is overhyped. The Iranians have every interest in a relatively stable neighbor.”
This is just about the same view as neoconservative Council on Foreign Relations scholar Max Boot, who writes in Commentary: “These cash payments hardly mean that Karzai is a dupe of Iran. He gets much more money and support from the U.S. than from the Iranians, and he knows that.”
“In a way, what the Iranians are doing, while undoubtedly cynical, is not that far removed from conventional foreign-aid programs run by the U.S., Britain, and other powers that also seek to curry influence with their donations,” Boot notes. He does, however, have concerns that the Iran-Karzai relationship is an indication of what is to come for Afghanistan should the U.S. “leave prematurely.”
So there you have it. Not much on the left, not much on the right. The “bags of cash” scandal has ended up being little more than the rare confirmation of business as usual.