Pakistanis try to defuse Iran-Taliban standoff
Iran's foreign minister: 'Pressure' for military actionSeptember 17, 1998
Web posted at: 10:23 p.m. EDT (0223 GMT)
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Trying to defuse the growing threat of a military confrontation between Iran and the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, Pakistan's foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, traveled to Tehran Thursday for emergency meetings with his Iranian counterpart.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told Aziz that there is "significant pressure on the Iranian authorities to resort to military means," though he said diplomatic efforts would be given priority.
Tensions between Iran and the Taliban, the religious group that controls most of Afghanistan, began to escalate after eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist were executed in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif after it fell to the Taliban in August.
On Thursday, the Taliban's radio service accused Iran of killing 56 Afghan refugees living in Iran. It urged the international community to condemn Iran, calling the killings "an inhuman act."
Iran sending more troops to border
The official Iranian news agency announced Wednesday that nine more army divisions, armed with tanks and artillery, had been sent to Iran's border with Afghanistan.
While Taliban officials have indicated a willingness to negotiate a peaceful solution, their chief delegate to the United Nations warned the Iranians that the group possesses a powerful arsenal of weapons, including Scud missiles that could be used on Iranian cities in the event of an invasion.
"We have deployed our soldiers with all kinds of weapons," said Hakim Mujahed.
There is also an intra-Islamic element to the standoff. Iranians are primarily Shiite Muslims, while the Taliban belong to the Sunni branch of Islam and have allegedly persecuted Afghanistan's Shiite minority. Iran has been allied with the domestic opposition to the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan has had close relations with the Taliban, and the Iranians have accused the Pakistanis of aiding them militarily, straining relations between Iran and Pakistan.
The message that Aziz took to Tehran was that the Pakistanis were not trying to interfere in Afghan affairs and were willing to act as a broker for negotiations between Iran and the Taliban. However, the talks apparently produced little movement.
"Although our Pakistani friends continue to assure us of their cooperation, we have not seen the necessary degree of cooperation and frankness that is required to settle this issue and to move forward," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN.
U.S. officials dispute Iran's troop numbers
Iran has said it has 70,000 troops along the border and is sending another 200,000 as part of an upcoming military exercise. However, U.S. intelligence reports say that the number of troops now in place is much smaller, between 15,000 and 20,000, and that the additional divisions will bring the number to just 40,000.
Still, those sources tell CNN that the buildup gives Iran the ability to launch a cross-border incursion with "little or no notice." The Iranians could also launch air or missile strikes.
The U.S. intelligence assessment is that Iran's decision on an invasion may depend on whether the Taliban releases 40 to 50 Iranians, who Iran says are still being held, and whether those accused of killing the diplomats are extradited, as the Iranians have demanded.
Some U.S. intelligence officials think Iran is most likely to strike with assassinations, commando attacks or simply more aid to anti-Taliban forces. Iranian-trained Afghan refugees may carry out the attacks to give Iran a measure of deniability, sources say.
Albright, top Iranian diplomat to cross paths
On Monday, a U.N.-sponsored group of diplomats from Russia, the United States and the six countries bordering Afghanistan is scheduled to meet in New York to discuss the standoff between Iran and the Taliban.
Both Kharrazi and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are scheduled to attend, which would be the highest-level contact between the two countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mahmoud Mohammadi said that there would be no bilateral talks between Kharrazi and Albright.
On Wednesday, the Taliban asked the United Nations for humanitarian assistance in the war-torn Bamiyan province, which has a large Shiite population. The United Nations tentatively agreed to send an assessment team -- but only if the Taliban agrees to assure its safety and to allow team members unfettered access to all affected populations in the Bamiyan area.
Correspondents Jamie McIntyre and Peter Bergen and Reuters contributed to this report.
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