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    Taliban-Iran Talks Aim to Increase Tehran's Influence, Analysts Say

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    Members of the Afghan Taliban say they have met with Iranian officials and clergy in Iran, despite deep differences in Muslim ideology between the two. Some analysts see the move as part of Tehran’s push to increase its influence in Afghanistan, as international combat forces prepare to leave the country.

    According to a Taliban statement released in Kabul, two groups of Taliban militants were recently in Iran at the invitation of the Tehran government. One group was on an unspecified three-day visit, while a second took part in an Islamic conference.

    Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai had little to say on the reported talks.

    He said the Kabul government is in touch with the Islamic Republic of Iran to confirm these reports, but before hearing from them he thinks there is no need to further comment on this issue.

    Analysts differ as to the significance and impact of the contacts between Iran and the Taliban insurgents, who have waged war against the Kabul government and its international allies. Both share a deep animosity towards the United States.

    Davood Moradian, a former senior policy adviser to Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, said the contacts have been quietly going on for years. But he said the latest public development is worrying for Afghanistan, because it appears the Taliban is trying to show itself as a viable political alternative to the current government.

    “It is very unfortunate because it further undermines the authority of the Afghan government,"Moradian said. "Now the Taliban are being projected or are becoming as a kind of a parallel government, competing with the central government in Kabul, and Afghanistan cannot afford to have a formal government in Kabul and a de facto government based in Qatar.”

    The Afghan and U.S. governments hoped that by encouraging the opening of an office for Taliban representatives in Qatar, peace talks could be held there to negotiate an end to the violence in Afghanistan. So far, those peace talks have not taken place. Instead, the Taliban’s annual spring offensive has been particularly brutal this year.

    Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., said Iran is looking to play a larger role in the region, possibly teaming up with such potential partners as Russia and India.

    “I think if the Iranians could have their way, [they] would like to be the key player there, but that’s not going to happen," Vatanka said, "so they are just trying to presumably assess their overall options and clearly you cannot ignore the fact that the Taliban is the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.”

    Vatanka added that if the Tehran government shows it can influence the Taliban in Afghanistan, it can present itself as an inevitable partner in solving the conflict.

    But former Afghan presidential adviser Moradian said that is a misreading of the situation, as any convergence of interests would be seen only if the talks included the government of Afghanistan. He said it is the Taliban that will benefit the most from the contacts with Iran.

    “What they are trying to do is multiply their sanctuaries. They are assured of Pakistan, now they have an office in Qatar, and soon they will have an office in Tehran,” Moradian said.

    Reports of the talks in Iran came as the Taliban and other militant groups have been ramping up attacks on Afghan security forces.

    On Monday, a suicide bomber apparently targeting a U.S. military convoy in eastern Afghanistan detonated explosives that killed schoolchildren and international soldiers.

    International combat forces are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The latest attacks are seen as a test of Afghan security forces, who will take full control of the country following the withdrawal.

    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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