Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai acknowledged Monday that his office regularly received large cash sums from Iranian officials but said there was nothing untoward about the payments.
The New York Times, in an article in Monday's editions on the payments, described periodic transfers of bulging sacks of currency to Karzai's chief of staff, Umer Daudzai, and strongly suggested that the money was meant to curry favor on behalf of Tehran in policy matters.
At a news conference in the capital, the Afghan leader acknowledged receiving fairly regular cash payments totaling about $2 million annually from Iran but said the sums were to defray governmental operating costs. Other countries, including the United States, make such donations as well, he told reporters.
"The government of Iran assists [the presidential] office," Karzai said. "Nothing is hidden.... Cash payments are done by various friendly countries to help the presidential office, to help expenses in various ways."
In Washington, Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, said U.S. officials have turned over large sums of cash to Afghan officials since the 2001 invasion because of the undeveloped state of the country's financial system. The Obama administration is skeptical of Iran's motives "given its history of playing a destabilizing role with its neighbors," Crowley said.
Hours before Karzai's statement, Iranian authorities in Kabul had dismissed the allegations vehemently.
"Such baseless rumors by certain Western media are raised to create anxiety in the public opinion and impair the expanding relations between the two friendly and neighboring countries," the Iranian Embassy said in a statement released early Monday, according to the pro-government Fars news agency.
But the revelations could serve Iran's interests, underscoring its continued influence in the region even as Washington attempts to isolate it over its continued pursuit of sensitive nuclear technology.
The episode illustrates the complex regional politics at play in Afghanistan. Karzai, who has spoken publicly of the possibility of the West abandoning Afghanistan, has openly courted neighbors such as China and Iran, as an apparent counterweight to the influence of the United States and other allies.
The incident also comes at a time when Karzai and his administration are under intense pressure to clean up corruption in public life. Although Karzai's Western backers have been struggling to establish transparency in financial transactions involving his government, it is not unusual in Afghanistan for large sums of money to be disbursed in a much more informal manner.
American military officers in the field, for example, are sometimes given a considerable cash stockpile to be distributed to tribal elders for projects at what is more or less their on-the-spot discretion. Such spending, intended as a bulwark against the insurgency, is sometimes referred to as using cash as a weapon.
The flap over Iranian money also comes as Karzai is locked in confrontation with the Western diplomatic community over his plans to suspend use of private contractors as guards for humanitarian and development projects before the end of the year.
Western governments have agreed that such security firms should be phased out eventually but contend that Afghan security forces are not yet ready to step into the role such companies fill.
Karzai spent much of the weekend in negotiations with senior U.S. and Western officials over the issue and fielded a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Afghan administration has indicated willingness to sign off on individual aid projects requiring private protection, but the West has balked at granting what amounts to veto power to Karzai on development and humanitarian assistance.
Also at issue is whether the money that would have been paid to private security firms — a multibillion-dollar business — would be funneled instead to the Afghan security forces, by way of Afghanistan's Interior Ministry. Western officials have informed the Karzai administration that there is no such plan in place.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.