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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 15:28 GMT
Iran regains role in Afghanistan
Afghan shopkeeper
Herat shopkeepers are enjoying new found freedoms
By Jim Muir in Herat

Iran has lost little time in asserting its influence in Afghanistan, especially in the west of the country which borders on Iran itself.

In one of those symbolic signs of change that happen in times of war, the Iranians have been quick to reopen their consulate in Herat.

So the Iranian flag is flying here again, something that would have been unthinkable until the Taleban fled the city a week ago, given the tense state of relations between the two.

Whether by coincidence or otherwise, the consulate is located opposite the headquarters of the Hezbi Wahdat - one of the factions of the Northern Alliance, which Iran backs.

Hezbi Wahdat is drawn almost entirely from the Shia Muslim Hazara community. So its ties with Shia Iran are particularly close.

But Iran also supports other factions in the alliance, including the Jamiat-i-Islami, which has apparently taken most of the power on the ground both in Kabul and here in Herat.

So Iran now seems confident that the adjacent areas of western Afghanistan are in friendly hands.

Herat airport
Herat's airfield is one of its main strategic attractions

As for the wider picture, it obviously wants its interests and concerns to be taken into account in efforts to reshape the country's political future.

That is something the chief United Nations representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has pledged to do, both for Iran and for the other major regional player, Pakistan.

He has also urged the two countries to co-ordinate as much as possible on the Afghan issue, despite their rivalry.

So the current visit to Islamabad by a key Iranian deputy foreign minister, Mhos Aminzadeh, will undoubtedly be welcomed by the UN's would-be nation-builder.

But as Mr Brahimi himself said, pledging support for the UN effort - as both Iran and Pakistan have done - is good, but it has to be carried through in a sustained manner.

In the past, regional rivalries have been blamed for many of Afghanistan's woes.

The BBC's Pam O'Toole
"Tehran is concerned about Washington's spreading influence"
See also:

07 Nov 01 | South Asia
Iran's refugee tide ebbs
26 Sep 01 | Middle East
EU woos Iran with coalition deal
13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan neighbours look to the future
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