TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s president told the leaders of Afghanistan and Tajikistan on Thursday that the three neighbours could provide a counterweight to NATO in Asia once foreign troops quit the region.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted the leaders of the two other Persian-speaking countries at a time when Iran is seeking to increase its influence in the region and NATO troops are struggling in Afghanistan.
A bete noire of the West over Iran’s nuclear activities, Ahmadinejad said the three countries had all thrown off foreign domination in recent decades and should strengthen economic and security ties and be independent of big powers.
“Many don’t find this desirable — three independent countries forming a powerful friendship in the region, and changing the current situation. None of them is happy about this,” he said in part of the meeting which was televised.
Iran sees the United States, which has troops in Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to the east, as an enemy. Washington is suspicious of Tehran’s regional ambitions and is determined to stop it getting a nuclear bomb, something Iran denies it wants.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who addressed the other leaders seated around a triangular table as “my dear brothers,” has been trying to improve relations with Iran in recent months, to the occasional consternation of Washington.
Karzai welcomed Ahmadinejad to Kabul in March and said he would host him and Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rakhmon at the next trilateral meeting in the Afghan capital.
Ahmadinejad called on foreign troops to leave the region and allow the three nations to develop closer bonds.
“Those who came in from Europe representing NATO, they want to put pressure on China, Russia and India, and if they are confronted by three independent, empowered countries here, then that is an obstacle,” he said.
Karzai has been looking for allies in the region in advance of an eventual American withdrawal.
Shi’ite Iran was a sworn foe of the Sunni Muslim Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan before 2001. U.S. officials say they suspect Iran has nonetheless provided some support for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, although not on anywhere near as great a scale as in Iraq, where Iran has Shi’ite allies.
“Foreigners who came to Afghanistan with the slogan of establishing security and democracy, now target civilians and their presence has brought nothing but mischief and corruption to the Afghani people,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at a separate meeting with Karzai and Rakhmon on Thursday, according to official news agency Irna.
Additional reporting by Myra MacDonald in London; Editing by Peter Graff