by Ernesto Londono | SMH.com.au | October 1, 2011
KABUL -- Iran quietly hosted a delegation of Taliban members in Tehran this month, in a powerful and unusual signal of its ambition to shape the trajectory of the Afghan conflict as US troops begin to withdraw.
According to associates of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who led the country's reconciliation efforts, Iranian officials had hoped to facilitate a meeting between Dr Rabbani and the Taliban delegation at a conference in Tehran.
Murdered Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Photo: New York Times
That did not happen, and days after attending the conference, Dr Rabbani was slain by a man posing as a Taliban negotiator. The two events do not appear to have been linked.
The presence of the Taliban members suggests Iran has cultivated deeper ties with the insurgent group than was previously known, and is stepping up efforts to influence its eastern neighbour as the US pulls out.
A predominantly Shiite nation, Iran supported the Northern Alliance as it fought the extreme Sunni Taliban during the 1990s, and came close to open war with the group in 1998 when eight Iranian diplomats were killed in Afghanistan.
US officials have for years accused Iran of fuelling the Afghan war by providing training and sophisticated weapons to individual insurgent commanders, although they have described Iran's role as minimal compared with other regional players. There have been few signs of senior-level contact between the Taliban and Iran.
US officials have launched their own initiatives to talk to the Taliban ahead of the withdrawal of American troops in 2014, to little avail.
''Iran considers itself a regional player with a legitimate stake in Afghanistan and it doesn't want to see progress that runs contrary to its political interests,'' said Michael Semple, who has decades of experience in Afghanistan as a diplomat and a scholar. ''If the price of Iran having a role in the next step is dealing with the Taliban, then they are prepared to do it.''
The Islamic Awakening conference was organised by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Held in mid-September, it drew more than 700 scholars and Islamist political figures from around the world. Arsala Rahmani, a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council who travelled to Tehran with Dr Rabbani, said he was startled when he saw Nik Mohammad, a former colleague from their years together as Taliban government officials.
''They seldom come to public events and when they do, they use aliases,'' said Mr Rahmani, who served as deputy education minister when the Taliban controlled Kabul in the late 1990s.
Mr Rahmani said the two men shook hands but exchanged nothing beyond pleasantries.
''It was not in the typical way Afghans use to greet each other,'' he said. ''It was done in a very cool manner.''
Mr Rahmani said that Mohammad, who was heading the small Taliban delegation, is an influential leader who is in contact with the top members of the Taliban's ruling Quetta Shura.
Mr Semple said that although Mohammad is on a UN sanctions list for terrorists, there has been little public evidence that suggests he is actively involved in running the Afghan insurgency.
Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst who was with Dr Rabbani's delegation, said he first learnt about the Taliban delegation as he leafed through the conference program and found two names he recognised. They were listed as representing what was described as ''the American Opposition Front in Afghanistan'': Nik Mohammad and Tayeb Agha.
Mr Agha is an aide to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, who reportedly held talks with US officials this year in Qatar and Germany but stopped talking to Western officials after his role in the talks was disclosed. None of the members of Dr Rabbani's delegation said they saw Mr Agha.
At one point, Mr Mozhdah said, the Iranian hosts asked Dr Rabbani's delegation whether they would object to giving the Taliban representatives an opportunity to make public remarks.
Mr Mozhdah, who worked in the Afghan Foreign Ministry during the Taliban's reign, said he objected, arguing to Dr Rabbani that such a move would ''damage the relation between Kabul and Tehran''.