U.S. and British officials say weapons crossing the border from Iran into Afghanistan are turning up in the hands of Taliban fighters.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said there is no evidence to confirm a direct role by the Iranian government in smuggling weapons to the Taliban. He says the Taliban could be using funds obtained from the illicit opium trade to purchase weapons from criminal groups. But Gates says Washington suspects the Iranian government is involved.
Suspicious But Unproven
"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," he said.
Imad Jad, a Mideast expert at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that the Iranian government appears to be aiding militants throughout the region.
"Iran has relations with the Hamas movement and is using the issue [of Gaza] for it's own regional vision," Jad said. "And also, for leverage in negotiations with Western countries in order to try keep its nuclear program. So there is an Iranian role in Gaza, indeed. And there is also an Iranian role in Lebanon through Hizballah. There is an Iranian role in Iraq and strong cooperation between Iran and Syria. So Iran is involved in more than one country in the region."
Ahmed Rashid, a journalist from Pakistan and author of the book "Taliban," has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979. He tells RFE/RL that he is certain that Iran is also supporting factional warlords and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
"I have no doubt that Iran has been involved in channeling money and arms to various elements in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, for the last few years," he said. "They have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small time warlords in western Afghanistan. I think Iran is playing all sides in the Afghan conflict. And there are Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns who are being funded by Iran who are active in western Afghanistan. If the Iranians are convinced that the Americans are undermining them through western Afghanistan, then it is very likely that these agents of theirs have been activated."
Rahul Bedi, a South Asia correspondent for the London-based "Jane's Defence Weekly," says he thinks Washington has good reason to suspect the Iranian government is sending weapons to the Taliban.
"There is something to be said for this," Bedi said. "There are Iranian-made weapons that are turning up both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And I think it is a sense of deja vu, because it is duplicating what the CIA did when the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan. A lot of the weapons that were given to the mujahedin fighters to dislodge the Soviet [forces] were sourced in third or different countries because of the element of deniability. In this case, I think the Iranians have probably learned from that experience of the CIA and the mujahedin and they are trying to duplicate, more or less, a similar operation."
Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected allegations that the Iranian government was 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."
NATO spokesman James Appathurai also says the alliance cannot prove the Iranian government has been directly involved in smuggling weapons to the Taliban.
"The line that you have seen from NATO remains the same, and that is that ISAF and international forces have come across weapons that seem to be of Iranian origin in Afghanistan," he said. "There is, from the point of view of NATO and ISAF, no clear intelligence linking this to the active involvement of the Iranian government."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafudeen Stanikzai has documented and photographed Iranian-produced land mines and other weapons that are being used by militants in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also announced this month that a powerful and sophisticated type of roadside bomb that is prevalent in Iraq has been discovered near a university in Kabul.
Until that discovery, suicide and roadside bombs in Afghanistan had never been as deadly or sophisticated as those in Iraq.
The so-called EFPs -- or explosively-formed projectiles -- are capable of penetrating armored vehicles. And the U.S. military has accused Iran of helping Iraqi insurgents to build and deploy EFPs.
Copying Iraqi Insurgents
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan by telephone from an undisclosed location this week that Taliban fighters are, indeed, studying and copying the techniques and weaponry used by Iraqi insurgents.
"We are studying which operations are the most effective on the ground," he said. "We will focus our future operations on Kabul because our enemy is concentrated there. Our enemy [and the enemy of the Iraqi fighters] is the same and we have the same goal. That's why we want to conduct the same kind of operations as the Iraqi mujahedin. The reason is that their operations have caused a large number of casualties to the enemy. They have been successful and so we are now following exactly the same tactics and structure of operations."
In May, Turkish authorities reportedly seized a cargo of machine guns and pistols hidden among construction materials on a Syria-bound train from Iran. Turkish officials say that discovery has led them to suspect that Iran is using Turkey as a transit point to send arms to Lebanon's Hizballah movement via Syria.
For its part, the Iranian government denies it has provided military support to militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories. But Tehran does admit sending what it calls political, moral, and humanitarian support to Hamas and Hizballah.
But even humanitarian support to those groups has led to criticism within Tehran from ordinary Iranians who say their government should be more concerned about worsening economic conditions in Iran.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai being greeted in Tehran in May 2006 (epa)
TEHRAN PLAYS ITS HAND. RFE/RL analyst Amin Tarzi led a discussion on the role Afghanistan may play in the delicate diplomatic game being played by Iran and the United States. Tarzi outlined ways in which Tehran might be flexing its muscle to show Washington that it can destabilize its neighbor.
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