Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto made a three-day visit to Tehran in early November to provide reassurances over Pakistani intentions in Afghanistan and to discuss trade and economic co-operation. Her talks with Iranian President Rafsanjani came days before an expected military offensive in Afghanistan by the Taleban, a militia group suspected by Tehran of being backed by Pakistan, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Bhutto told the Iranian parliament on 7 November that Pakistan is not giving ‘financial or military support to any faction of the Afghans’. Paraphrasing a statement by Rafsanjani, she said that ‘only a madman ready to commit suicide would think of meddling in Afghanistan under present circumstances’.

However, she added that Pakistan believes ‘the time has come to an end for the Kabul government’. She was referring to the government of President Rabbani who is under pressure to transfer power to an interim authority to avert a potentially bloody battle with the Taleban before winter sets in.

Rabbani said on 7 November, a day before the arrival of a UN special envoy, that he would transfer power, but only after an end to civil war and to external meddling. The Taleban, who took control of western Afghanistan in the autumn and have threatened an imminent offensive against Kabul, did not immediately react.

Bhutto told the parliament that Pakistan agrees with Iran about the need for a political solution in Afghanistan, including power sharing by the various mojahedin guerrilla factions. No one in Pakistan or Iran ‘can dream of the day when we would be rivals or compete with each other,’ she said.

Tehran and Islamabad have long had close relations, co-operating on political, military and economic matters. The two sides are now discussing gas pipeline projects and construction of new land routes, including a 650-kilometre coastal highway. There is also talk of building a joint oil refinery in Pakistan. Iran has also offered to mediate with India over Kashmir.