Iran brings Afghanistan before Muslim parley

Iran's unprecedented inclusion of eight Afghan rebel leaders in its delegation to the Islamic foreign ministers conference here once again turns the spotlight on the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.

The May 18 Iranian move also raises the stature of the rebel groups and guarantees them a forum for anti-Soviet denunciations and pleas for support from the Islamic countries.

Iran's bold step occurred without fanfare on the second day of the foreign ministers conference attended by 38 Muslim nations and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has the status of a full member. It comes at a time of increasing Iranian dependence on the Soviet Union for goods and supplies in the wake of the American economic boycott against the country.

It has major implications for the Islamic nations which, in a shift from a previous stance, appear to favor a political solution to the Afghan issue.

The new "Iranian" delegates are leaders of six rebel groups based in the Pakistan city of Peshawar and two heads of Tehran-based groups. They appeared at the conference site in mid-afternoon May 18 with official Iran delegation badges clipped to their traditional tribal attire. A Pakistani official said Iran's action had no precedent in the Islamic conference's 11-year history of meetings.

Afghanistan itself has no official delegation at the conference. It was suspended from the Islamic conference in January, joining controversial Egypt as a pariah in the Muslim world.

Iran joined its fellow Muslim states in denunciations and demands for Soviet troop withdrawals at the emergency January session, convened a month after the Soviet invasion. But its criticism has been muted recently as Soviet aid to Iran continues to pour in to help the country cope with economic sanctions.

Observers speculate that the Iranians may expect a quid pro quo for their seating of the Afghan rebels: strong conference language deploring United States military and economic moves to free the hostages.

The net results of the closed five-day meeting are expected to be a condemnation of both superpowers for military action and meddling in the Islamic world, and efforts to distance the Muslim states from potentially explosive superpower rivalries.

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