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Iran: War Against Afghanistan On Hold, But Relations Tense

Prague, 12 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- From the way the Iranian and Afghan Taliban leaderships talked in recent months, it appeared that a war between them was imminent. But despite rhetoric, brandishing of weapons and some severe provocations, there hasn't been a war.

One reason may be that Iran is waiting to see if other countries and international organizations succeed in reducing tensions. Another may be that Iran is showing restraint in order to gain diplomatic advantage among Islamic countries.

Finally, the Iranian government may believe that its own people lack enthusiasm for a new war, especially given the still vivid memories of the long conflict with Iraq.

Still, relations are tense, as they have been since the Taliban took power in Kabul two years ago. The Iranian government is aiding two factions, the Northern Alliance and the Shia Hizb-i Wahdat, which oppose the Taliban. But the recent crisis between the two countries erupted in August, when Iran accused the Taliban of taking as hostages several Iranian diplomats and a journalist in a Taliban attack on the northern Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The Taliban at first denied any knowledge of the diplomats. Then, the Taliban in September said that what it called rogue elements had killed them. The Taliban refused to apologize, rejected requests for the extradition of those responsible, and accused the dead Iranians of having been intelligence officers.

International organizations reported killings of Shi'ite Muslims in Afghanistan by the Taliban, who are Sunni. There were also reports, for instance in the Iranian newspaper Farda, that the Taliban has been allowing groups opposed to the Iranian government to operate out of Afghanistan.

In response to all of this, Iranians took to the streets in demonstrations and many officials demanded retaliation.

In early September, 70,000 troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps conducted military exercises along the Afghan border and then remained in place after the exercises concluded. Subsequently more troop arrived for another exercise and reports from Iran said that up to 270,000 Iranian soldiers had massed near the border.

Meanwhile, Iranian naval forces increased activities in the Persian Gulf and in a cluster of small lakes between Afghanistan and the Iranian province of Sistan, known collectively as Lake Hamun.

On October 8, the situation appeared to deteriorate further. Iranian news outlets reported that Taliban forces had attacked an IRGC post in Khorasan province but had been beaten back. A Taliban spokesman denied the Iranian reports.

The beat of figurative war drums attracted international attention. Representatives from Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China -- called the Six Plus Two group -- met in New York in September, during a U.N. General Assembly session.

Later, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Tehran. He also traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Taliban officials. He urged both sides to comply with Security Council Resolution 1193, which called for an immediate end to all fighting in Afghanistan, and for an end to outside interference, including military training and arms supplies.

By mid-October, Brahimi's shuttle diplomacy appeared to be yielding results. The Taliban released groups of imprisoned Iranians. But the Iranian government is refusing to meet with Taliban leaders until the killers of the Iranian diplomats have been punished.

Back in September, when Iranian President Khatami addressed the United Nations, he said his country realized military action wouldn't provide a solution. And while Iran remains publicly outraged, it appears increasingly likely that it will stop short of war.