Leading article: It is time the West understood Islam

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IRAN CONTINUES to deny that her disputes with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will lead to open conflict. Border clashes, and the disappearance of Iranians in Afghan territory, while serious, do not seem a reason for all-out war: but there is more to their rivalry than that. Fundamentalist Afghanistan has turned to Pakistan as its protector; Iran, in the process of liberalisation and rapprochement with the West, faces the prospect of maintaining a long and unstable border with an absolutist anti-Western state. She has turned to Russia as her only available sponsor, reviving military and economic links from the 1980s.

Beyond those immediate political realities, there is the clash between two Islamic traditions, a new Iranian Shi'ite pragmatism and Afghan Sunni radicalism. Those who have tried to paint Islam as one great bloc, from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East, should think again: religious and political differences in that world are as rife as in Europe.

A glance at the map shows how many trouble spots surround Afghanistan. Pakistan and India look on anxiously in their own nuclear Cold War; Saddam Hussein would dearly love Iran to be distracted. The ex-Soviet states of Central Asia are economically vulnerable as the price of their oil falls; Russia's crisis would be exacerbated if they were to be drawn into war once again.

The West, used to seeing Iran as an enemy, should realise that times - and nations - change. Iran may now act as a bulwark of stability against a renegade Afghanistan. Madeline Albright's recent attempts to build bridges with Iran have been welcome, but we should go further, and stop demonising great tracts of the rest of the Islamic world. A policy of engagement is long overdue.