Afghan officials have confirmed they are investigating intelligence reports about gunmen in two pickup trucks crossing into Afghanistan's western Farah Province from Iranian territory on June 18.
Increased Military Activity
Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, an Afghan border guard commander for three provinces that border Iran, told the German news agency dpa on June 19 that about 20 armed men had crossed the border from Iran.
"Karzai needs all the friends he can get in the international sphere. His relationship with Pakistan is quite troubled. So I think he does not want to make any more enemies on his border and he is trying to keep the relationship with Tehran on as even a keel as possible."
DPA quoted Safi as saying that intelligence reports indicated the gunmen were heading to a part of Farah Province that has seen escalating militant activity in recent months.
Safi made similar comments in an interview that was broadcast by Afghanistan's Ariana TV.
But when questioned by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan shortly after the German news agency published his remarks, Safi said he could not comment while an investigation is under way.
"We had some reports that two vehicles entered our country from the border areas," he said. "There were only some reports. We have not seen them personally. We have ordered our forces to control such movements. However, we did not find any other incidents."
Safi also has told Western and Afghan journalists that remnants of Iranian ammunition were discovered on the ground in Herat Province after fierce clashes last weekend between Taliban and Afghan police. He said five antitank mines with Iranian markings were also seized at the border two weeks ago.
But Safi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that there is no evidence proving the weaponry has been sent by the Iranian government.
"So far we don't have any evidence which would satisfy our government and the international community that our neighboring countries have been undermining our country’s [laws]," he said. "We would need evidence to prove it. We have ordered our military units to check the reports. We will see what results we are getting after the investigation and assessments in the area."
Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected allegations that the Iranian government may be sending weapons to Taliban fighters in an attempt to destabilize his country.
"We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban," he said. "We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."
But U.S. officials have accused Tehran of shipping advanced weaponry to militants who are trying to bring down Karzai's government.
Earlier this month, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Washington has "irrefutable evidence" that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is arming Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
'Difficult To Believe'
But later, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington has suspicions but no hard evidence of a direct link between the Iranian government and weapons used in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
"I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities we are seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it is taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," Gates said.
Tehran on June 21 categorically denied that it was sending any aid or weapons to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Iran's state news agency, IRNA, quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari as saying that the allegations are "so unfounded and irrational that independent officials" in both the United States and the United Kingdom has assessed the claims as "unsubstantiated and unreal."
Karzai Under Attack
Jean MacKenzie, the Afghanistan country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says Karzai and his administration may be downplaying the issue in order to maintain good diplomatic relations with Tehran.
"Hamid Karzai is in a very difficult situation...at present," MacKenzie said. "He is under attack from all sides within Afghanistan -- people in the government who are not supporting him, a new political front dedicated to undermining Karzai's position and overthrowing him if possible, and then, of course, he has got the Taliban always making problems. Karzai needs all the friends he can get in the international sphere. His relationship with Pakistan is quite troubled. So I think he does not want to make any more enemies on his border and he is trying to keep the relationship with Tehran on as even a keel as possible."
MacKenzie says she is unsure if Karzai or his administration would publicly announce any "irrefutable evidence" that proves the involvement of Iran's government in weapons shipments to Taliban fighters.
"We have got reporters who are trying to run down the weapons link," she said. "There are many reports, much more than anecdotal evidence, that weapons are coming into Afghanistan from Iran. Specifically, into Herat and the other western provinces -- but mostly into Herat. It is very difficult to get people to go on the record on such a topic as weapons shipments, particularly when it involves a foreign government."
(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rashteem Qadiri in Herat and RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah in Prague.)