| ||In Afghanistan, Scandal Erupts Over Changing Street Name To Honor Iranians|
By Ron Synovitz
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MAZAR-I SHARIF - Provincial officials in northern Afghanistan have asked the central government in Kabul to decide whether a street in Mazar-e Sharif should be named after a group of Iranian diplomats killed there in 1998.
The move, announced in a statement by the Administrative Council of Balkh Province, comes after a scandal erupted over reports that the street with Iran's former consulate building in Mazar-e Sharif already had been renamed Martyrs of the Consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran without approval from Kabul.
If the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture blocks the proposed name change, the affair is likely to rekindle an old dispute and damage relations between Tehran and Kabul.
But formal approval of the name change risks angering the many Afghans who view the Iranian diplomats as spies who had tried to divide Afghanistan along sectarian lines in order to create a Shi'ite-dominated buffer state on Iran's eastern border.
Eight Iranian diplomats and an employee of Iran's state-run IRNA news agency were killed at the Iranian consulate building in August 1998 when Mazar-e Sharif was overrun by Taliban fighters.
A senior Taliban official at the time -- Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil -- initially said Taliban investigators concluded that the Iranians were killed by "renegade forces" who acted without orders from the Taliban leadership. Later, the Taliban denied any involvement in their deaths.
Tehran has always blamed the killings on the Taliban, saying it also held Pakistan's government partly responsible because Islamabad had vouched for the safety of the diplomats before Mazar-e Sharif fell to the Taliban.
Reports of the street name being changed to honor the slain Iranians emerged last week in an announcement by Iran's Foreign Ministry.
By August 12, the story had boiled over into an angry debate on the floor of the Afghan parliament.
"The people who were killed there may have been spies, but now they name the roads in their honor," said Mohammad Akbar Stanikzai, an independent member of parliament from Logar Province. "If you see how Afghans in Iran are not allowed to attend Friday Prayers, how they don't have permission to attend the religious schools, or how Iran executes innocent Afghans, it is shameful for us to rename our streets in honor of their spies."
In fact, the administrators of Balkh Province say the original request to change the name of the street was made by the Iranian government, which had itself renamed a street in Tehran after the slain Afghan anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Masud.
Balkh's governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, is said to have backed the change and forwarded it to the provincial council for their approval in order to recognize "the services and cooperation of the friendly country of Iran with the people of Afghanistan" during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and resistance against the Taliban regime.
'An Insult' To Afghan Culture
It was after the debates in parliament that Balkh's provincial council admitted the name change also requires approval from the Information and Culture Ministry in Kabul.
Afghan analyst Razaq Mamoon told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that a majority of the Afghan people oppose the name change.
"This is an extraordinary decision and it is not compatible with Afghanistan's laws," Mamoon says. "It will be opposed by a majority of the people. The reason is that the street named after Abu Muslim-i Khorasani [the current name of the street] is a central road of the city. Naming it to honor nine or 10 Iranian spies will be an insult to Abu Muslim-i Khorasani and Afghan culture."
Tehran has long been accused of playing a double game in Afghanistan -- helping Afghan Shi'ites while allegedly working to destabilize the larger Sunni Afghan community.
Relations between Kabul and Tehran have been strained in recent years due to Iran's toughened immigration policy, which has led to the repatriation of many Afghan asylum seekers.
Although Iran has hosted a large number of Afghan refugees since the early 1980s, it has tried to repatriate those still in Iran as soon as possible.
Angry demonstrations have been sparked in Afghanistan by public executions of Afghan citizens in the streets of Iran.
There also have been many reports alleging that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has been training Afghan militants inside Iran to carry out terrorist attacks back in Afghanistan.