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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 17:47 GMT
Foreign powers move back to Kabul
The abandoned US embassy in Kabul
The US embassy in Kabul has been empty for years
Barnaby Mason

The Iranian Government says it has re-opened its embassy in Kabul - the first such formal move since the Taleban abandoned the city to the Northern Alliance a week ago.

The United States, Russia and Britain have also sent in diplomatic teams, keen to re-establish contacts, wield influence or help the United Nations promote a political settlement.

The Iranians set the pace, sending in diplomats only two days after the fall of Kabul and immediately starting repair work and repainting their embassy building.

Now the foreign ministry in Tehran says the embassy has started work.

Northern Alliance President Rabbani
Iran recognises the pre-Taleban government of President Rabbani

Preparations are also being made to re-open Iranian consulates in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

An Iranian diplomat in Kabul told Reuters news agency that Iran would continue to recognise the pre-Taleban administration led by Burhanuddin Rabbani - in other words, the Northern Alliance - until a new broad-based government representing all factions could be set up.

Iran is bitterly opposed to the Taleban and has supported the Northern Alliance partly because it includes representatives of Afghanistan's minority Shia community.

Containing Western influence

The vast majority of Iranians are Shia Muslims.

Besides protecting the Afghan Shias, Iran wants to contain the growing influence of the United States and Britain.

The American envoy, James Dobbins, has been active in Kabul talking to various Afghan factions after making similar contacts with exiled groups in Pakistan.

US envoy to Kabul, James Dobbins
James Dobbins wants to establish contact to key figures

The US is primarily focused on pursuing Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, but it wants to make sure that any new government includes representatives of the biggest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

That is a key demand of the Pakistan Government, too.

Mr Dobbins said he was hopeful that the US could re-establish a permanent diplomatic presence in Kabul within a couple of weeks.

The American embassy has been closed since 1989.

Britain has also sent in a small team of diplomats led by a senior foreign office official, Stephen Evans.

His brief is to maintain contacts with key political figures in Kabul and work closely with the UN.

UK envoy to Kabul, Stephen Evans
Stephen Evans plans to re-open the British embassy in Kabul

The team have re-occupied the British embassy but have not re-opened it for normal business.

There is no ambassador, since that would imply being accredited to a government that does not yet exist.

However, officials say they do intend to maintain a permanent diplomatic presence.

The European Union will play a big part in giving aid for reconstruction in Afghanistan, provided that a future government respects human rights.

Russian team

EU foreign ministers have agreed to appoint a special envoy, who is expected to be a German diplomat and operate out of the former German embassy in Kabul.

Another party set on exerting influence on the course of events is Russia.

A 12-member team arrived on Sunday, saying it would be discussing the shape of a future government with the Northern Alliance.

The Russians have been one of the Alliance's main supporters, although they, like others, are now committed to the UN plan for a broad-based government.

They too are talking about re-opening their embassy.

Symbolic gesture

Afghanistan has been plagued in the past by its neighbours and other outside powers meddling in its affairs.

Many countries want to renew their involvement, and the re-opening of embassies is a symbol of that.

The hope is that all will exert their influence in the same direction - and that this time the intervention will be benign.

See also:

20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's huge rebuilding task
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's Taleban ties dissolve
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Iran regains role in Afghanistan
15 Nov 01 | South Asia
Race to prevent Afghan disintegration
13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan neighbours look to the future
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