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Afghanistan: Iran Risks Much With Threat To Taliban

Boston, 14 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- While Central Asia watches and worries, Iran may be risking its chance for business and investment as it threatens military action against Afghanistan's Taliban.

Although a force of 70,000 Iranian troops ended an exercise near the Afghan border earlier this month, many have remained in the area as a continuing show of strength.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently ruled out a confrontation with the Taliban militia. But anger remains high since the capture of 11 Iranian diplomats and a journalist in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Aug. 8. The Taliban said Thursday that they have found the bodies of nine diplomats. Iran is holding the Taliban responsible for their deaths.

Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi warned again last week that "Iran will revert to making use of all possibilities to free its diplomats and citizens." President Mohammad Khatami reinforced the remarks, saying that Iran would act in "whichever way we see fit." The country has since launched a second military exercise near the border.

Experts believe that a punitive attack on the Taliban is possible, although still unlikely. A prolonged incursion into Afghanistan would have far-reaching consequences for Iran, as well as profound effects on Central Asia, which fears the Taliban.

The fallout from a conflict would be complex. The Taliban has warned that "the flames of war will cover Iran" if it crosses the Afghan border. Iranian troops could also become bogged down in the mountainous country, as did Russian forces a decade ago.

The reactions of Central Asian republics would likely be mixed. Countries like Uzbekistan would welcome a greater commitment by Iran to oppose the Taliban, while Russia would support such a move because of its own reduced ability to keep the Taliban in check.

But emotions may be more complicated in Turkmenistan, which enjoys good relations with the Taliban. The republic hopes to see Afghanistan united so that a pipeline can carry Turkmen gas to new markets in Pakistan. At the same time, Turkmenistan has friendly ties to Iran, which is its current major market for gas. As long as peace prevails, Iran may also be able to provide Turkmenistan with a pipeline route to Turkey for its gas exports.

But if fighting erupts with the Taliban, the chance for stable routes through Iran could go by the boards. Iran has frequently cited its stability in competing for Caspian Sea pipeline routes, drawing comparisons to the troubled Caucasus. That advantage could fade quickly in the event of a war. Some foreign companies that have voiced interest in Iran's oil projects could also have second thoughts.

Battling the Taliban would do long-term damage to Iran's already-strained relations with Pakistan. It would also cool Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia, which have improved in the past year.

All these are reasons for Iran to resist the temptation to strike at the Taliban, which has already shown its military might. It is also far from certain that Central Asia would rest easy in the event that Iran proves victorious and becomes the dominant power on the region's southern border. While the influence of the fundamentalist Taliban is feared, so is that of Iran.

But aside from the problem of its diplomats, Iran has both business and security interests in keeping the Taliban from consolidating its hold on Afghanistan. Until the Taliban can complete its conquest, it has little hope of winning foreign investment in the gas pipeline route from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. If that route remains blocked, Iran may stand a better chance of selling its own gas to Pakistan from Persian Gulf fields.

Iran's prudent course is to continue aid to Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance rather than to join in a direct clash with its own troops. Such a move would invite Taliban attacks on Iranian pipelines and other assets for years to come.

Central Asia could find some immediate relief from its worries over the Taliban if it becomes diverted by fighting on the border with Iran. But in the long run, the region would see its options narrowed if a wider war ensues.

Republics like Turkmenistan are likely to increase their reliance on Russian export routes if Iran becomes seriously embroiled to the south. Although Russia has virtually cut off Turkmen gas for 18 months, there may be little choice. Pipelines through the Caucasus, if they come, could take years to construct. Hopes for a long export route to China also seem no nearer to reality after Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov's recent visit to Beijing.

Although the Taliban pose a threat, war with Iran may only make matters worse. As with the crisis in Russia, the region can only watch and worry over events that are beyond its control.

(Michael Lelyveld is national correspondent for the Journal of Commerce. He wrote this analysis for RFE/RL.)