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Western intermediaries are trying to persuade arch foes Iran and the United States to cooperate on bolstering security in Afghanistan as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to extract America from its longest war, according to three source familiar with the efforts.
The intermediaries, the sources say, secretly have been relaying messages between Washington and Tehran for months in hopes of getting the sides talking at a time of heightened hostility on a range of issues.
"Afghanistan is one area where there is common ground," one source with knowledge of the correspondence told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House declined to comment and the U.S. State Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Iran officially denies any back channel talks with the United States over any topic.
The United States and Iran share an interest in ensuring that a departure of the more than 20,000 U.S.-led foreign troops does not plunge Afghanistan into a civil war that restores the Taliban's harsh version of Islamic rule, and does not allow al Qaeda or other Sunni Muslim extremist groups to expand there.
Moreover, with U.S. sanctions hammering its economy, Tehran wants to avoid Afghans fleeing to neighboring Iran if there was a surge in bloodletting, regional experts said, as has happened over decades of war in the central Asian country.
Trump and Tehran have another shared interest: Both want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
There are no signs, however, that either Tehran or Washington are ready to put aside disputes over Iran's nuclear program and U.S. and Iranian activities and alliances in the Mideast to cooperate on Afghanistan.
One message seen by Reuters and conveyed to Washington outlined Iran's concerns with the Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban on a U.S. troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan talks on a political settlement.
Afghan-born veteran U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad has erred in taking "over-zealous shortcuts by talking directly to the Taliban," a senior Iranian official said in the message.
This approach has given "political supremacy" to the Taliban as they are gaining militarily, the message said. Taliban leaders, it continued, have told their Iranian interlocutors they will not "accept anything less than a Taliban-dominated government" that rules "an Islamic emirate."
Shi'ite Muslim-dominated Iran long has been wary of the Sunni Muslim Taliban. It nearly went to war during Taliban rule when the militants killed at least eight Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist in 1998.