Monday, November 5, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Iran has held secret negotiations with the Taliban in an attempt to secure its influence in the region and block the return of the exiled Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.
There have been two official visits from the Taliban to Tehran in the past three weeks and a secret visit by an Iranian delegation to Kabul. Iran is believed to have offered to arm and fund the return to Afghanistan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahideen leader, who has been living in exile in Iran and wants to take up arms against the former king. Officials also discussed providing fuel to the Taliban.
The meetings, which were confirmed by a Taliban government minister and a senior Taliban diplomat last week, mark a dramatic shift in Iran’s policy of supporting the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The Taliban’s radical brand of Sunni fundamentalism is at odds with Iran’s Shi’ite version of Islam.
The Taliban has constantly persecuted Shi’ite minorities in Afghanistan, and the two countries almost went to war three years ago after the murder of eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist by Taliban soldiers in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The thaw in relations came when a Taliban delegation led by Wahid Mazhada, head of the Central Asia desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, went to Tehran three weeks ago to offer an apology and seek support.
“Tehran will still never accept the Taliban but they have invested a lot in Afghanistan and don’t want to end up with a hostile pro-American government on their borders,” said a Pakistani religious leader close to Mr. Hekmatyar.
The Iranians paid a return visit to Kabul last month. A second Taliban delegation, led by Mullah Zain Mohammed, the deputy defense minister, is now in the eastern Iranian city of Mashad.
Pakistan and Iran have long struggled for influence over Afghanistan, and each had its own groups during the war against the Soviet Union. The Taliban could not have taken over Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help, but its decision after September 11 to support the United States has left the field open.
Iran fears the return of the king could stir up support for the overthrown Iranian Pahlavi dynasty.

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