‘We have no intention of interfering in the work of this country,’ Khatami said during what was the first visit by an Iranian head of state to Afghanistan in 40 years. ‘No country should accept the interference of other countries in the affairs of Afghanistan.’

In a reference to claims by Washington that the Islamic republic was sheltering Al-Qaeda militants that have fled the US military campaign in Afghanistan, Khatami said that all Al-Qaeda fighters seeking refuge in the Islamic republic would be arrested. The comments followed the recent handover of 16 Al-Qaeda suspects by Tehran to Saudi Arabia.

‘We have announced that in no way will Iran be abused or misused by the terrorist groups who have been in Afghanistan,’ Khatami said. ‘As soon as we know that there are people who may be connected to these groups we will take action.’

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 14 August brushed aside reports that Iran had turned over any suspects. ‘With respect to the terrorists that they say they have turned in, they have turned none in to us,’ Rumsfeld said. ‘There is no question but that they have permitted Al-Qaeda to enter their country. They are permitting Al-Qaeda to be present in their country today, and it may very well be that they, for whatever reason, have turned over some people to other countries. But they have not turned any to us.’

In a press conference at President Karzai’s palace Khatami warned that a widening of the US campaign against terrorism could unleash a chain reaction that would engulf countries other than the intended targets in a new round of violence.