Afghanistan threat hastens thaw between US and Iran

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The Independent Online
AS TENSIONS on their country's border with Afghanistan mounted yesterday, Iranian representatives began a series of high-level meetings in New York that could accelerate the thaw in relations between Tehran and the West.

From the rostrum of the United Nations, Iran's reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, appealed for international pressure to be brought to bear on the Taliban, Afghanistan's radical Sunni rulers, to end massacres of the Shia Muslim minority.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, was due to sit across a table from Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, at a session of an eight-nation group seeking to contain the crisis, which has brought Iran and the Taliban regime to the brink of open conflict.

Mr Kharrazi had also been scheduled to see Robin Cook, though that was cast into some doubt by the Foreign Secretary's decision to remain with the Queen in riot-torn Malaysia.

Although Washington insists that bilateral issues will not be on the agenda, the Kharrazi-Albright face-to-face is the highest-level contact between the two governments since the US embassy hostage crisis in November 1979, and is a chance to nudge forward the "direct dialogue" urged by the Clinton administration.

The US still maintains sanctions against a regime it accuses of fomenting international terrorism. But on Afghanistan a de facto community of interest has emerged. Like Britain, the US has condemned last month's murder of nine Iranian diplomats by Taliban militiamen, to which Iran responded by sending200,000 troops to its eastern border, plus an unspecified number of helicopters yesterday.

Both Tehran and Washington - with its missile attack against the headquarters of the suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden in August - have claimed the same right of self defence, under the same Article 7 of the UN charter, to intervene with force in Afghanistan.

Mr Cook's talks with Mr Kharrazi would have followed a two-day visit to London this month by Ali Ahani, the head of the West European department of the Iranian foreign ministry.

The visit was a sign of how Britain's ties with Iran may also be emerging from the deep freeze, but British officials discount talk of an early exchange of ambassadors. The problem remains the 1989 fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie. The edict can only be lifted by religious authorities in Iran, not by President Khatami, however much he might be inclined to do so.