April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials are expressing concern at the possibility that Iran might be moving to support the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The comments, on April 17 and today, mark the first U.S. suggestions that the Iranian government might be helping antigovernment fighters opposing Kabul's and NATO's efforts to bring security to Afghanistan.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said in Brussels today that Washington has seen what he called "a series of indicators that Iran is maybe getting more involved in an unhealthy way in Afghanistan."
He said these included reports of arms supplies to the Taliban and involvement in what he called "political areas."
No 'Clarity' On Who Is Involved
Boucher's remarks follow a similar assertion on April 17 by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. Pace said that Iranian-made mortars and explosives had been intercepted in the Afghan province of Kandahar, on their way to the Taliban.
Pace and Boucher avoided linking the arms directly to the Iranian government.
Pace said all that is known is that the material was made in Iran and was captured on its way to the Taliban. Pace acknowledged that the United States does not know "with the same clarity [that] we know in Iraq who is delivering those weapons, who is involved."
U.S. officials have frequently accused Iran's Shi'ite Islamic regime of supporting Shi'ite insurgents in neighboring Iraq with sophisticated explosive devices and training. Five Iranian nationals whom the U.S. suspects of being agents are currently being held in Iraq.
But this is the first hint from Washington that Iran could be supporting elements now waging a fierce campaign against NATO and Afghan government forces.
Change Of Tack?
Peter Lehr, an expert in Afghan-Iranian relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said today that such a major policy shift is unlikely on the part of the Taliban.
"There was always a big distrust, or rather hatred, [by the Taliban] of the Shi'ites in their midst," Lehr told RFE/RL. "The Taliban is very Sunnite, and Pashtun, which means it is a very fundamental form of Islam, and they treat Shi'ites as heretics. So I don't see any warming up [of Iranian-Taliban relations] so far."
Lehr said there is the possibility that either the Iranians or the Taliban have decided that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Such thinking could prompt them to join in common cause against Western forces in Afghanistan. But he finds this scenario pushed "a bit far."
But Lehr also said weapons can be moved around and traded without the knowledge of the government.
"There is organized crime, there are the usual smuggling routes, trucks are going from Afghanistan to Iran [with their cargoes] to be exported via Russia to Europe, so why not arms the other way, as a means of paying for the trucks?" Lehr said. "But that does not necessarily mean that the [Iranian] government is behind it."
In Tehran, the Iranian ILNA news agency quotes an unnamed official with Iran's Foreign Ministry as calling Pace's remarks baseless and aimed at obscuring U.S. and British failures in Afghanistan.
For Iran to support the Taliban would also represent a considerable change in policy. When the Taliban were in power in Kabul, Shi'ite Iran threw its weight behind Taliban opponents, such as the warlords of the Northern Alliance, who were the key to ousting the Taliban after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Iran came close at one point to itself invading Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, because of the pressure being exerted on the Shi'ite Afghan minority by the militia.
Tehran's role in helping to establish a UN-backed government in Kabul following the removal of the Taliban regime was also widely praised.
The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in March banning all Iranian arms exports. However, the British paper "Daily Telegraph" reported today that the Iranian Defense Industries Organization (DIO) nevertheless has an exhibit of weapons at an international arms fair starting today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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