Iran's leadership, however, is divided over the clash with Afghanistan. "President Khatami has been trying to avoid being drawn into a shooting war, but hard-liners have been egging it on," says McGeary. And the fact that the hard-liners control the army makes it difficult for Khatami to keep a lid on things. But even if Iran does launch punitive strikes, its military knows better than to be drawn into the quagmire of an actual invasion of Afghanistan -- Mikhail Gorbachev is living proof of how much that does for one's domestic political standing.
Iran claims its army whupped the Taliban in a firefight Thursday; the Afghan militia denies the incident even occurred. But the reported clash may be part of a strategy by Iranian hard-liners to undermine their moderate president. "This clash is part of a struggle for dominance in the Islamic world," says TIME correspondent Johanna McGeary. Shiite Iran wants the Sunni Taliban to hand over members who murdered eight Iranian diplomats earlier this year. It also accuses the Taliban of killing Shiite civilians inside Afghanistan, and has massed 200,000 troops on the border to underscore its ire.