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Western Press Review: Islam, Power And Oil Make A Volatile Mix

By Don Hill and Annie Hillar

Prague, 17 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Threat of war in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran confluence captures the attention of an array of commentators in the Western press today.

TIMES: Iran's anger is fully justified

"A new Middle East war is fast approaching," says The Times of London in an editorial. The newspaper says: "Army divisions from nine Iranian provinces are heading for the border with Afghanistan for maneuvers that could begin as early as Saturday." The editorial says: "With the (Afghani) Taliban threatening the build-up with rocket attacks, the exercises look ominously like the prelude to military action."

The Times says baldly: "Iran's anger is fully justified. The Taliban capture on August 8 of Mazar-i-Sharif was accompanied by the blood-letting that has become the hallmark of these obscurantist religious fanatics. Among those killed, largely from the Shiite minority, were members of the Iranian consulate. Such a disregard of diplomatic immunity would infuriate most countries; but Iranian anger has been sharpened the Taliban's defiant response, by Amnesty reports of widespread atrocities against fellow Shiite Muslims and by indifference from the rest of the world."

The editorial says: "The West is in a dilemma. The Taliban's main backers are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both American allies. Washington itself gave tacit encouragement to a group that it hoped would put pressure on Iran. Now, however, the Taliban's abuses, especially of women, and their sheltering of Osama bin Laden contrast awkwardly with Iran's tentative openings."

TIMES: Pakistan's backing for the Taliban could lead to the country's greatest catastrophe

In the same newspaper, Christopher Thomas analyzes Pakistan's likely involvement in any Iran-Afghanistan confrontation. He writes: "Pakistan has edged closer to political and social collapse amid technical bankruptcy, turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan and increasing assertiveness by extremist Islamic groups. The government has launched an unprecedented move towards greater Islamization in an attempt to hold the nation together."

The writer says: "Pakistan's backing for the Taliban could lead to the country's greatest catastrophe. The militia controls all of Afghanistan save for the Panshir Valley north of Kabul, and areas in the far northeast, which are held by the forces of the government the militia dislodged from Kabul in 1996. (The Taliban's) belief in its own invincibility might persuade it to turn its attention to the old dream of creating a region called Pashtunistan, taking in Pashtun tribal areas both in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

WASHINGTON POST: Developments are fast causing knuckles to be bared on all sides

From Islamabad, Washington Post writer Pamela Constable wrote this week in an analysis that the Mazar-i-Sharif was more nearly an outcome of the growing confrontation that it was a cause. She wrote: "Afghanistan, once a bloody battlefield of the Cold War, is becoming deeply embroiled in a high-stakes rivalry between two regional powers -- Iran and Pakistan -- for influence over that fractious state at the crossroads of Central Asia. Tensions in the region have been escalating rhetorically by the day -- and could explode into military conflict -- because of the killing of nine Iranian diplomats during intense civil warfare in northern Afghanistan last month."

Constable wrote: "But the diplomats' deaths are only one flash point in a much broader rivalry for ethnic and religious dominance, economic advantage, geographic access and international influence that has split Afghanistan into Iranian and Pakistani spheres of influence. Until now, that influence has been largely covert and unacknowledged, but developments are fast causing knuckles to be bared on all sides."

EL PAIS: A war in Afghanistan could end in a disaster

The Spanish daily El Pais, Madrid, hears what it calls editorially "Drums of War" in what it says today, in an editorial, is a "dangerous escalation in a zone -- a decisive crossroads of influence in central Asia -- whose explosiveness has grown parallel to the territorial consolidation by the Taliban militia in Afghanistan since the 1994 uprising. The immediate response of the Taliban, of threatening to strike the heart of Iran if attacked, demonstrates that the 'pure ones' are not taking lightly the Iranian troop deployment along almost a thousand kilometer section of its frontier."

El Pais concludes: "Iran is no United States, and as its own foreign minister has admitted, a war in Afghanistan, 650,000 kilometers square in the middle of the most arid region on earth, could end in a disaster similar to that which Moscow suffered in the same scenario. It would inevitably ignite criticism and chastisement from the Central Asian region -- an ocean of petroleum. And it would not let the Pakistani military stand by with its arms crossed. (Pakistan's) own emerging atomic potential has engendered a fundamentalist militia in its refugee camps and has contributed decisively to its zeal to obtain a strategic space in its pugnacious history with India."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Moderates have pushed for avoidance of military conflict

An analysis in today's edition of the British newspaper Financial Times by Mark Huband says there are moderating influences at work in Iran. He writes: "Iran's moderates have pushed for a military conflict to be avoided as signs have begun to emerge of what the implications would be for central Asia, Iran and Pakistan. Central to their concerns is the fact that the leading role such a conflict would give its armed forces could result in a resurgence in the power of conservative politicians and military offices. Former conservative stalwarts of the regime have been sidelined since the moderate President Mohammed Khatami's dramatic election victory last year."

DIE WELT: There continues to be uncertainty about Teheran's aims

German commentator Evangelos Antonaros in Die Welt writes: "The saber-rattling between Iran and the radical-Islamic Taliban militia which rules most of Afghanistan continues, although Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar has offered the government in Teheran 'direct peace talks to defuse the situation.' Iran has not reacted -- and has no intention of reacting. On the contrary, after the sharp condemnation of the murders of eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist by the U.N. Security Council, the Iranians feel confirmed in their belief that the Taliban only understands 'the language of strength.' "

Antonaros writes: "There continues to be uncertainty about Teheran's aims: Though the religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei only last week indicated that hostilities were unlikely, he has now -- through mobilization -- signaled that a war might be in fact just around the corner."

INDEPENDENT: The prize for which the two regimes are vying is not only regional leadership

It's all about oil, says an analysis by Rupert Cornwell in The Independent, London. Cornwell writes: "To the unpracticed eye they are just two sides of the same coin: two radical Islamic nations engaged in an in-house feud. In fact, hostility between Iran and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan runs deep, fueled by a dangerous cocktail of geopolitical rivalry, religious differences -- and, inevitability, oil.

"Only in the most immediate sense does the dispute, which has seen Tehran mass 200,000 troops along its eastern border, stem from the murder of nine Iranian diplomats by Taliban militiamen."

The writer says: "Long before the murder of the diplomats, Iran was providing bases for Taliban opponents. Its hostility now will only be fueled by reports of large-scale massacres of Shias after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif."

Cornwell writes: "The prize for which the two regimes are vying is not only regional leadership. It is also the path of be followed by any pipeline carrying oil and gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to the deep water ports in the south."

NEW YORK TIMES: This time, Iran has a legitimate grievance

The New York Times seizes in an editorial today upon what it calls an irony -- "since 18 years ago it was Iran that held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days." The Times says, though: "This time, Iran has a legitimate grievance."

The editorial contends: "To American eyes, the clerical dictatorships of Iran and Afghanistan can seem variations on the same Islamic fundamentalist theme. But relations between the two neighboring countries are now at a flash point. Ethnic, political and religious tensions have been exacerbated by the recent killings of at least eight Iranian diplomats by Afghan Taliban fighters. Iran is now assembling some 250,000 troops along the Afghan border and threatens military action unless its demands for amends are met."

The editorial says: "A United Nations working group on Afghanistan meets in New York next Monday, and Iran's foreign minister and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright may attend. Such talks could help defuse the crisis over Iran's diplomats and ease tensions between Washington and Tehran."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: U.S. strategy and goals in the region are unclear

Part of the problem, writes the Sueddeutsche Zeitung's Tomas Avenarius in a commentary today, is that the United States' policy trumpet is giving forth an uncertain sound. He writes: "How has it come to the point of war? Anyone wanting to know the answer should take a look at the absurd scenes being played out between Iran and Afghanistan. Just like in a textbook dealing with the outbreak of World War I, diplomatic muscle flexing, military exhibitionism and the wailing for blood by the whipped-up fervor of the masses follow each other in turn. Borders have to be protected, murdered nationals avenged, and threatened co-religionists protected. Is all this merely a hail of words? Perhaps. But hostilities sometimes follow such threats."

Avenarius writes: "U.S. strategy and goals in the region are unclear. Is (the United States) standing behind the Taliban or still behind Pakistan? Or does it have its eyes on the reformers in Teheran? The Iranians could well feel encouraged. In the best scenario, they would heave a few bombs at Taliban bases in line with the U.S. example. In the worst scenario, they would march in. But an invasion would then include the nuclear power Pakistan in the plan. And the world power, the United States of America, would be there without any plan."