Tensions rise between Iran and Afghanistan

In a clear warning to Afghanistan's Taliban leadership, Iran has staged the largest military exercises since the 1979 Islamic revolution along the border with Afghanistan. Seventy thousand of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are testing modern ground and air weapons equipment within 40 kilometres of the Afghan border.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have seized control of Mazar-e Sharif, the main headquarters of the Northern Alliance, a haphazard coalition of forces with a common hostility to the Taliban. Twenty eight of the country's 32 provinces are now under Taliban control.

According to reports from Amnesty International, when the Taliban captured Mazar-e Sharif, thousands of Hazara men, women and children were rounded up and executed. Their bodies have been dumped in mass graves.

Information from eyewitnesses and survivors collected by Amnesty indicates that the vast majority of those killed were Hazaras living in Zaraat, Saidabad and Elm Arab areas of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Ten Iranian diplomats and an Iranian correspondent have disappeared since the town was occupied. The Tehran regime says the Iranians are being held as hostages in Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban. However, the Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's leader, claims that the Iranians were either killed in the fighting, or fled with the departing population when Mazar-e Sharif fell.

While the United Nations has condemned the seizure of the Iranian consulate, this will likely be ignored by the Taliban, secure in the knowledge that their principal paymasters — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — will continue to support them financially and militarily.

The Pakistani ruling class in Islamabad recognised the Taliban regime in September 1996 and assisted the Kabul government to capture the rest of Afghanistan. This has angered Tehran, which sought Pakistani assistance in bringing about a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict.

Iran's differences with the Taliban go much further than the recent storming of the Iranian consulate. The ideological differences between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Iran are deep and simmering.

The Iranian government has strongly denounced the policies of the Taliban, including its ban on female education and employment, branding it as un-Islamic. The reasons for Iran's dislike of the Taliban are both sectarian and ethnic. The Taliban are orthodox Sunni, while Iranians are predominantly Shia, a minority denomination within Islam.

In Afghanistan, Shiaism is popular among the minority ethnic Hazaras, who are of Mongol ethnicity. In contrast, the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun, which is the country's largest single ethnic group, accounting for some 40% of all Afghan nationals.

The Hazaras are the fourth largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, making up about 12% of the Afghan population of 20 million.

Most ethnic Hazaras, who live in the Bamiyan province in the Mountains of Hazaras, support the Hizbe-Wahdat-e Islami (Islamic Unity Party), led by Karim Khalili. That party is reported to be backed militarily and financially by Tehran. When the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, the Wahdat became part of the opposition Northern Alliance. The Taliban have been unable to conquer Bamiyan province.

The purpose of the military exercises by Iran seems to be to discourage the Taliban from launching a major offensive against Bamiyan.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the US clients in the region, want a united Afghanistan under Taliban leadership so that construction can begin on proposed oil and natural gas pipelines through Afghanistan from the countries of central Asia. Oil conglomerates want access to the oil-rich countries of central Asia, but need a stable Afghanistan in order to exploit those resources.