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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 06:53 GMT
UK mission to Afghan neighbours
Afghan refugees on Pakistan border
Iran and Pakistan have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis
By diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is in Tehran for talks in which he will urge Iran to give active support in persuading rival factions in Afghanistan to agree to a new broad-based government.

He will also meet Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who arrived in the Iranian capital en route to Europe for next week's conference of rival Afghan factions.

It is a chance for the British government to gauge at first hand how cooperative the Northern Alliance is prepared to be at the United Nations-sponsored meeting.

On Friday, Mr Straw will travel on to Islamabad to try to secure Pakistan's support for a multi-ethnic Afghan government.

Jack Straw
Jack Straw says he is going to listen
This is the second time since the terrorist attacks of 11 September that Mr Straw has visited Iran. His previous trip was the first by a British Foreign Secretary since the Iranian Islamic revolution over 20 years ago.

It is the latest sign that the two-month-old war on terrorism is allowing nations to forge new relationships.

Mr Straw said the main purpose of his mission to Tehran and Islamabad was to listen.

He wants both Iran and Pakistan's views of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and their assessments of the refugee crisis which both have borne the brunt of.

Crucial issue

Most importantly he said he wanted to know how far they would be prepared to give active support in getting traditionally opposed Afghan groups to end hostilities and forge a broad based national government.

With the conference on Afghanistan's future due to start in Bonn on Monday, it is this last point that is crucial.

Northern Alliance soldiers
There is division over the Northern Alliance's role

That meeting will be the first time rival factions from inside Afghanistan and from emigre groups have agreed to sit down together.

Just getting them to agree a time and a place for this preliminary meeting has taken weeks of delicate negotiations.

Until now Pakistan and Iran have supported rival Afghan factions - Iran favouring groups in the Northern Alliance and Pakistan backing the southern Pashtun tribes, including for a time the Taleban.

But the crisis of 11 September changed all that.

Severed ties

Pakistan has severed its ties with the Taleban, and Iran has agreed to work together with the United States and its allies in combating terrorism and in trying to bring peace to Afghanistan.

And though Tehran was vehemently against the American bombing campaign, it has still continued to cooperate.

That alone has been seen as something of a breakthrough and is one of the reasons Jack Straw is now making his second visit to Tehran in less than two months.

But it is collaboration between Afghanistan's neighbours that is seen as the real key.

Improved relations

Diplomatic contacts between Iran and Pakistan have improved since September - President Musharraf even dropped in on Tehran on his way to the UN General Assembly in New York recently.

But as far as Afghanistan goes, relations are still uneasy. Iran has let it be known it does not want the former King of Afghanistan to take a leading role in any future government, something Pakistan has been pushing for.

How far the Northern Alliance should stay in control of Kabul is also disputed. So is what role, if any, recent defectors from the Taleban might play in any peace settlement.

So Mr Straw's aim on this trip will be to impress on both countries the need to work together, if Afghanistan is not to collapse into conflict again and if next week's conference is to have any chance of laying the groundwork for a long term settlement.

The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"Dr Abdullah... is one spokesman and could not take decisions for the Northern Alliance as a whole"
Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw
"There is not a difference in opinion"
See also:

21 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Straw set for new diplomatic drive
21 Nov 01 | South Asia
Nations unite to rebuild Afghanistan
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Q&A: What will Afghan talks produce?
21 Nov 01 | Americas
US wary of peacekeeping
25 Sep 01 | Middle East
UK fosters Iran relations
24 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Analysis: Straw's visit divides Iran
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