Taliban push Khatemi into new isolation

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Tehran - Hojatolislam Sayed Mohamed Khatemi, Iran's new President, has promised civil liberties and "greater participation" in government for his people - but the Taliban's victories in Afghanistan are likely to dominate his first days in power. For with the pro-Saudi militia, covertly encouraged by the United States, in control of most of Afghanistan in spite of the capture and then loss of Mazar i-Sharif, Iran is in danger of yet further international isolation.

The Taliban's successes do not just mean that Iran's eastern neighbour has fallen under Saudi-American influence. They hold out the prospect of a new outlet for the immense reserves of natural gas of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan through the Pakistani port city of Karachi, threatening Iran's own gas exports. Iranian authorities, needless to say, see the collapse of most of General Abdul Rashid Dostum's forces in northern Afghanistan as part of a US plot against Iran, aimed at blocking Iran's entry into the wealthy markets of central Asia.

Pakistan's recognition of the Taliban government has only increased fears in Tehran that Western companies will soon begin construction of an important gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan with the Pakistan coastline through territory newly captured by the Taliban. Iran News has accused the Americans, Saudis and Pakistan - itself a military supporter of the Taliban - of playing "monetary and weaponry [sic] cards" to establish the new status quo, claiming that the US company UNOCAL has a multi-million dollar plan to pipe Turkmen gas to Karachi through Afghanistan. "The Taliban have sufficient blessings from the United States, despite that country's strident but hypocritical `anti-fundamentalist' policy," the paper says. "The primary objective of the US is to close the door on Iran in the gas export business."

At least President Khatemi can be assured over the coming months of powerful allies within Iran. It emerged this week that one of his most astute campaign supporters was Said Hadjarian, who may become the new Minister for the Interior - if he does not become Iran's new foreign minister. Dr Ali Akbar Velayati, the present incumbent at the foreign ministry, publicly endorsed the candidacy of Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the parliament speaker, on Iranian television two days before the election. He could lose his job. Sources close to the new Iranian administration say Mr Velayati may be given the health ministry, although President Khatemi values his 17 years' expertise in foreign affairs.

Mr Hadjarian has an interesting history. During the 1980-1988 war against Iraq, he was based in Tehran as head of war propaganda operations against Saddam's invading army, acting under the nominal leadership of Kamal Haradi. His experience in charge of Iran's "psy-ops" war stood him in good stead during last week's election, when he produced what is now, inside Iran, a famous poster. It showed the late Ayatollah Khomeini along with Ayatollah Ali Kham-enei, Iran's spiritual leader, weeping into white handkerchiefs while Mr Khatemi could be seen, chin resting on his hand and definitely not crying, contemplating the prospects for his country. The message was simple: while the guardians of the Islamic revolution spend their time remembering past "martyrs", Khatemi is planning for the future.

Among other ministerial appointments being touted in Tehran is that of the ministry of Islamic Guidance - which oversees the press, television, films and much of the country's cultural life. The post is widely expected to go to Ahmed Purned- jati, the current head of Iran's television service, IRIB. Another ministerial job may go to Mousavi Khoineha, the former chief prosecutor of Iran and now head of the Salaam newspaper group. With these powerful allies, President Khatemi could form a strong and unified government, although he realises the challenges ahead. On the day after the election, those Tehran officials who supported Nateq Nouri's candidacy failed to show up at their offices - they are rumoured to have decamped to a village north of the capital to contemplate their future - while Sayed Khatemi reflected upon his presidency.

Mr Khatemi is reported to have entered his own office on Saturday with realistic words for his staff. "I have in front of me," he told them, "the hardest years of my life." Few would dispute his assertion.