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World - Middle East

White House confirms Iranian military buildup

In this story:

September 5, 1998
Web posted at: 10:13 p.m. EDT (0213 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Iran has made a "substantial buildup" of military forces near its border with Afghanistan amid escalating tension over the fate of Iranian diplomats there, U.S. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger confirmed on Saturday.

Berger, accompanying U.S. President Bill Clinton on a visit to Ireland, told reporters there had been "enormous hostility" generated by reports that 11 Iranian diplomats were captured by Taliban guards at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan.

CNN learned Wednesday that U.S. intelligence reports indicate "major elements" are positioned 25 miles from the Afghan border in northeastern Iran, including an estimated 35,000 Iranian troops along with tanks, artillery and two SA-6 anti-aircraft batteries.

An independent report in Pakistan said the Taliban had taken the unprecedented step of arming civilians in Nimroz province, which borders Iran, against possible attack from Iran or by anti-Taliban fighters exiled in the Islamic republic.

Fate of diplomats unknown

Iranian leaders have accused Afghanistan's ruling Taliban of holding hostage 11 Iranian diplomats, 35 Iranian truck drivers and an Iranian journalist. The Iranian nationals reportedly turned up missing in Afghanistan after a military sweep of the northern part of the country.

Berger said Iran had been unable to determine whether the diplomats are alive.

CNN has learned, however, that U.S. intelligence reports suggest that "it is possible" at least some of the diplomats may have been killed by the Taliban.

The Taliban has acknowledged holding the Iranian truck drivers but has said it is not aware of the fate of the journalist and the diplomats.

Hossein Abdollahi, a senior Iranian diplomat in Pakistan, was quoted by the Iranian daily Abrar as saying the Taliban had pledged to clear up the question of the missing diplomats within a week. He said there was a proposal to set up a joint team with Pakistan's help to investigate their fate.

City of Herat 'most likely target'

One U.S. intelligence official told CNN that, should Iran choose to punish the Taliban, the range of options include a "terrorist-style strike," or "even an armed incursion into Afghanistan."

U.S. intelligence reports said that "the most likely target" for any outright assault appeared to be the "key provincial Taliban-held city" of Herat.

State-run Tehran radio, in a commentary reflecting calls in Iranian media for a strike against the Taliban, said Iran had the right under international law to take all necessary military action.

"Undoubtedly, even if the international community remains silent in the face of the savage acts of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran will in no way allow its citizens to remain as Taliban's hostages," the radio said.

'A grave situation'

Iranian political analyst Sadeq Zibakalam said an Iranian strike against the Taliban appeared likely.

"Unfortunately, it seems that we are quickly moving toward a grave situation," said Zibakalam, a Tehran University professor of political science.

"Iran wants to teach the Taliban a lesson. On the other hand, it seems that some officials want to re-establish Iran's influence in Afghanistan through military means, something they tried and failed to do through diplomacy."

The Sunni Muslim Taliban seized Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in 1996 and now controls about two-thirds of the country, but it is not recognized as a legitimate government by the United Nations, by Shiite Muslim Iran or by the United States.

In an attempt to impose military and religious control over the north, the Taliban took over Mazar-i-Sharif last month and has since massacred thousands of civilians, according to Amnesty International.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. military launched a cruise missile attack on what it called terrorist camps in southeastern Afghanistan in an effort to damage a movement led by exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

U.S. officials say bin Laden has been linked to the August 7 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. They said the missile strikes were ordered in retaliation and because of indications that new attacks were planned.

The Taliban has in the past provided support to bin Laden.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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