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Iran: Signals Indicate Desire To End Afghan Conflict

Iran has sent strong signals over the last weeks that it is ready to step up efforts to mediate an end to Afghanistan's continuing civil war. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the reasons.

Prague, 6 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's relationship with Afghanistan has not been easy over the past months.

A little over a year ago, it appeared there would be open fighting between Tehran and Kabul, after the ruling Taliban militia's forces killed 10 Iranian diplomats and one journalist. The Taliban claimed the Iranians were killed by rogue militiamen but Tehran never accepted the claim and throughout last year there were occasional border skirmishes between the two sides.

But in recent weeks Tehran has shown more interest in making peace in Afghanistan than in pursuing disputes. Starting last month, it permanently reopened a cross-border road leading to the Taliban-controlled city of Herat in western Afghanistan after all frontier crossings had been closed for nearly a year.

The opening came after the Afghan embassy in Tehran requested help for Afghanis displaced in last summer's fighting between the Taliban and Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance, which controls 10 percent of the country. Even though Tehran has long backed the Northern Alliance -- which includes brethren Shiite of the Hizb-i-Wahdat faction -- the Iranians dispatched trucks loaded with cooking oil, grain, and other essential supplies to Kabul.

Now, both Tehran and the Taliban have exchanged direct signals that they are ready for serious talks between them. The Iranian food deliveries led Taliban Foreign Minister Mowlawi Wakil Ahmad Motawakkil to send a letter last month proposing direct negotiations. And shortly afterwards, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said his country wants to help resolve the war in Afghanistan.

Analysts say the sudden warming in communications between Tehran and Taliban could have a cathartic effect on Afghanistan's long-stalled peace process. That process has seen little movement since a disappointing meeting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Tashkent last summer. The meeting, mediated by the so-called Six-plus-Two group -- which comprises Afghanistan's neighbors, including Iran, plus the United States and Russia -- saw no results other than a renewal of combat a few weeks later.

William Samii, a regional specialist with RFE/RL, says that Iran has strong foreign policy reasons for seizing the current thaw with Kabul to push for peace in Afghanistan. He says one of the most important of these is to improve relations with Pakistan, whose backing of the Taliban has long been a source of friction between the two regional powers.

"Tehran's reasons go beyond the humanitarian. Iran wants to build a natural gas pipeline to India, and it must pass through Pakistan. Iran is already offering substantial transit fees to Pakistan, which according to reports, vary from $500 million to almost $1 billion a year. A preliminary agreement for construction of a $3 billion pipeline stretching some 1,400 kilometers from South Pars to Karachi was signed in 1995 but there has been little progress in building it yet."

Iran and Pakistan recently revived a $1.1 billion refinery project that had been postponed since 1991. The refinery, to produce six million tons of petrochemical products per year, is to be built in Hub, in Pakistan's western province of Baluchistan, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Strong signs that Pakistan is equally eager to resolve the Afghan crisis and improve its relations with Tehran have also appeared in recent weeks. Last month, Pakistan's new leader Parviz Musharraf visited Iran in one of his first trips abroad since taking power in a coup in October. After meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mohammad Khatami, and Kharrazi, he announced that Pakistan will coordinate its policies with Iran's in resolving the Afghan conflict.

Both Iran and Pakistan also share domestic reasons to push for an end to Afghanistan's two decades of civil war. Each houses large populations of Afghan refugees which cost them millions of dollars annually to provide for.

"The Afghan conflict has created a tremendous refugee crisis. Iran hosts about 1.5 million Afghan refugees and Pakistan hosts about another 2.5 million refugees. So, both countries are keen to have these Afghans go home. They are linked with smuggling of guns, drugs, and other things. And, in the case of Iran, the Afghans work for less money than the average Iranian will, which allegedly contributes to the Iranian unemployment rate. But despite the harassment and discrimination they face, the Afghan refugees remain reluctant to return home until their security is guaranteed."

So far, Iran has stopped short of saying it wants peace in Afghanistan to meet its own priorities. Instead, Tehran has said its renewed interest in the peace process is based on proposals from Burhanudin Rabbani, Afghanistan's former president who is still recognized as its head of state by Tehran and the United Nations, though not by the Taliban or Pakistan.

Rabbani, who reportedly lives in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashad, visited Tehran at the end of last month. In an interview with Iranian state radio, he said Tehran should work with Pakistan, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as well as the UN and the Six-plus-Two Group, to come up with a plan to resolve the conflict.

But Rabbani also sent mixed signals that he wants to see Afghani resistance to the Taliban continue along with peace steps. Pakistani media have reported that Rabbani met with anti-Taliban leaders, such as the ethnic Uzbeks Rashid Dustum and Abdul Malik, as well as Hizb-i Wahdat chief Karim Khalili, to encourage their return to Afghanistan. At the same time, a newspaper [Sahaar] in Peshawar, Pakistan, reported last month that Iran has resupplied the Afghan opposition with arms and a new armed front is being formed.

Tehran's attention to Rabbani may play well among Afghan refugees in Iran and the anti-Taliban forces, but analysts say the key to resolving the Afghan crisis nonetheless lies with the country's powerful neighbors and its ruling Taliban militia.

And there are some signs that now the Taliban -- like Iran and Pakistan -- also may see more reasons to talk peace. Samii says there are two factors likely to make the Taliban more flexible in the months ahead.

"The first factor is the Taliban's need for supplies, since recently imposed UN sanctions have forced Pakistan to severely curtail trade with Afghanistan. That means, Iran is now providing a vital lifeline for trade, and that is a reason for regional peace. The second factor is that the Taliban have lost much of their ethnically-related domestic support for keeping up their fight with the opposition. This is forcing them to recruit foreign fighters, among them Pakistanis, Arabs, Central Asians, and even some Chinese Muslims."

The analyst says the combination of these factors strongly suggests that the Taliban are coming to recognize that their conflict is neither sustainable nor winnable. If so, that is a conclusion that Iran and Pakistan both seem ready to welcome.