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Afghanistan: Military Exercises Fan Iran-Taliban Tension

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 1 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's massive military maneuvers near the border with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan have raised tension between the two neighbors to new heights.

The three-day maneuvers, which started today (Sept. 1), involve 70,000 Iranian elite troops and the country's most modern weapons. Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Major General Yaha Rahim Safavi makes no secret of the fact that the exercises are linked to "recent events in Afghanistan" -- meaning the kidnapping of a group of Iranian diplomats and others in a Taliban-held area of Afghanistan last month. Just to ensure the Taliban get the point, the Iranians say that a feature of the maneuvers will be simulation of a strike deep into enemy territory.

The ultra-orthodox Islamic Taliban militia, fresh from military victories over their internal opponents, have responded strongly. A statement says that any Iranian attempt to threaten Afghan territory means that Iran will be covered by the "flames of war". The statement also labels the missing Iranians as "spies" and accuses Iran of "shameless" interference in Afghan affairs. Iran has long supported the Afghan government of President Burhannudin Rabbani, which was ousted by the Taliban.

Is this Iranian show of saber rattling taking place solely on account of the missing diplomats, or are wider motives in play? RFE/RL regional analyst Bruce Pannier comments:

"The diplomats who are being held hostage are definitely a part of it, but you have to look at the bigger picture, namely that the Taliban have recently had many battlefield successes and probably control more than 90 per cent of Afghan territory now. So this is not only a message about treating the Iranian hostages properly, but it is also sending a message to the Taliban government that it will not let the Afghan troubles spill over onto its territory".

Despite the warlike posturing along the border, no-one really expects Iran to use force against the Taliban. Pannier says:

"I would not read into this that Iran would plan any kind of invasion, I think the situation would have to be very threatening before Iranian troops would actually cross the border into Afghanistan. Certainly the Iranians from their long historical knowledge of Afghan affairs are more aware than most that invasions of Afghanistan usually end in disaster".

Adding further support to this view is the fact that the Iranians have not carried on military activities beyond their borders for a very long time, possibly centuries. And in the event of any incursion they would have to reckon with grave adverse reaction from the world Islamic community.

Iran's action is also meant as a signal to Pakistan, one of the few countries which recognizes the Taliban government and which allegedly supplies arms to the Taliban militia. The message from Teheran is that even if Pakistan has had some success interfering in Afghan affairs, Islamabad should not be emboldened to think it can carry that interference further westward, over the Iranian border.

Iran and Pakistan have long had friendly ties, but their differences over Afghanistan and the Taliban have placed heavy strains to these ties in more recent times. Similarly most of the Central Asian states, fearing the zeal of the Taliban, are growing increasingly wary of Pakistan.

There is much irony in the hostility between Shi'te Iran and the Sunni Taliban, considering that both of them are seen as hard-line Islamist. Pannier views their roads however as different, with Iran following a more modern and sophisticated approach.

"Whereas the Taliban ideas are much more basic, an orthodox and rigid form of Islam, founded strictly on the teachings of the prophet and the Koran with no allowance for inventions in the Islamic world after the eighth century."

Iran also takes issue with very many Taliban interpretations of the Koran. So as Pannier puts it, in a strange reversal of fortune, the fundamentalists in Iran are now confronted with an even more fundamentalist group in a neighboring state.