The gap between Iran and the Taliban continues to widen, while the increasing number of troops along the border between the two Muslim states is causing consternation in the West.

"Most non-Muslim Westerners," said an American official, "cannot distinguish between Iran's bearded Mullahs in their big turbans, and the bearded, untidy Taliban militants now controlling most of Afghanistan."

The American official had a point; the two sides are united by religious fervour, hatred of the West, militancy and a shared belief in the rightness of an Islamic state. But each represents one of the two sects that has divided Islam for 1,300 years. However, the difference is not just between Shia and Sunni; there are also regional and international politics involved.

The Taliban, who have consolidated their grip over almost all of Afghanistan, are imposing a strict version of Islam, especially against women and all types of culture. The moral code they impose, according to their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, is seen by the majority of Muslims world wide as backward looking and unrealistic, to the point that even Iran, famed for its rigid Islamic code, has accused the Taliban of giving Islam a bad name.

The Taliban forces took over the last stronghold of the opposition coalition in August, reports ensued by Western diplomats and aid workers of summary executions, the banning of work and education for women, and the systematic beating of young men for shaving off their beards. Alarm bells sounded in countries along the Silk Road from to Tajikistan and other central Asia, predominantly Muslim, republics, all the way to China, which has its own unhappy sizeable Muslim minority.

Russia placed extra troops on the Afghan Tajiki borders fearing infiltration by militants, after Taliban forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of the anti-Taliban alliance in northern Afghanistan on 7 August.

The Iranian consulate in town was occupied by Taliban militia -- who accused Iran of supporting the united opposition forces. (the US State department sources say Iran has lifted substantial quantities of arms and other supplies to the town in the last few months).

Iran holds the Taliban militia responsible for the disappearance of dozens of Iranians, including 11 diplomats, during fighting in Mazer-i-Sharif in August.

Reports suggested that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, personally ordered his forces to detain the Iranian diplomats and journalists as...

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