West's Afghan aims rankle with Iran

BONN Mon Dec 5, 2011 12:24pm EST

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BONN (Reuters) - Iran renewed an objection on Monday to foreign troops staying in Afghanistan after 2014, a reminder that an enduring international role in Tehran's neighbor may aggravate tensions between the Islamic republic and the West.

Iran has been accused in the past of providing low-level backing to Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency, and diplomats and analysts have suggested Tehran could ratchet up this support if it wanted to put serious pressure on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Speaking at an international meeting on Afghanistan, Ali Akbar Salehi said: "Certain Western countries seek to extend their military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 by maintaining their military bases there. We deem such an approach to be contradictory to efforts to sustain stability and security in Afghanistan."

"Any international or regional initiative to restore peace and security in Afghanistan could only be successful if they discard the presence of foreign military forces and especially ... the founding of foreign military bases in Afghanistan."

Salehi also condemned what he called the violation of human rights by foreign military forces in Afghanistan including attacks on residential areas. The foreign military presence over the past 10 years had failed to uproot terrorism and had actually made the problem worse, he said.

Washington and Kabul have yet to reach an agreement which would allow it to keep some forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

But Western officials foresee some role for allied forces after 2014, the agreed cut-off date for the departure of most foreign combat troops, possibly in a mix of roles including training and special forces.

Brewing confrontations pitting Washington against Pakistan and Iran, two of Afghanistan's most influential neighbors, have added to despondency over the outlook for the Afghan war.

Pakistan boycotted the meeting after NATO aircraft killed 24 of its soldiers on the border with Afghanistan in a November 26 attack the alliance called a "tragic" accident.

And Western worries that Iran's confrontation with the West over its nuclear program could worsen the Afghan war were heightened on Sunday when Tehran said it shot down a U.S. spy drone in its airspace and threatened to respond.

International forces in Kabul said the drone may have been one lost last week while flying over western Afghanistan.

Asked to comment on Salehi's remarks, Simon Gass, NATO's senior civilian representative in Kabul, downplayed the prospect of Tehran acting as a spoiler in any Afghan settlement. He recalled Iran was a historic foe of the Taliban, which has a record of hostility to Afghan Shi'ites, Iran's co-religionists.

Gass, a former British ambassador to Tehran, said Iran often objected to the prospect of Western bases in Afghanistan after 2014, but Kabul had always replied "with equal clarity" that that was a decision for Afghanistan.

Despite its dislike of the Taliban "Iran has a history in Afghanistan of supporting some Taliban groups in different ways. That could continue. We shall have to see," he said.

"But what I would say is that my quite long experience of Iran is that Iranians are realists, and once the international agreements are in place which define the security architecture for Afghanistan after 2014, my belief is that Iran will begin to adjust to those new realities."

"We have to remember that one of Iran's most important interests is to make sure that there is no return of a Taliban government to Afghanistan," he told Reuters.

"Although we may often differ in the ways in which we exercise influence in Afghanistan, I don't think that Iran will play a fundamentally spoiling role," he said.

(Writing by William Maclean; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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