Negroponte confirmed the U.S. concerns over China's weapons deals with Tehran after a 10-ton weapons cache was discovered in the western Afghan province of Herat.
The cache found in Ghurian district, near the border with Iran, included artillery shells, land mines, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers with Chinese, Russian, and Persian markings on them.
Britain's Foreign Office has also confirmed that it has complained to Beijing about Chinese-made HN-5 antiaircraft missiles confiscated from Taliban fighters who were captured or killed by British Royal Marines in Helmand Province. Beijing has said that it would investigate allegations that the weapons were forwarded to the Taliban through Iran.
When asked in Kabul on September 11 about the Taliban's use of sophisticated new Chinese weapons, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte also suggested that Iran has been a transit point for Chinese arms deliveries to the Taliban.
"A subject that I have discussed with the Chinese in the past is the fact of their weapons sales to the country of Iran and our concern," Negroponte said. "We have tried to discourage the Chinese from signing any new weapons contracts with Iran. We are concerned by reports -- which we consider to be reliable -- of explosively formed projectiles and other kinds of military equipment coming from Iran across the border and coming into the hands of the Taliban."
In June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Washington had no evidence proving a direct role by the Iranian government in smuggling weapons to the Taliban. But Gates said Washington suspects Tehran is involved.
"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.
Not Without Tehran's Knowledge?
Alex Vatanka is the Washington-based Iran analyst for Jane's Information Group, which publishes "Jane's Defence Weekly" and other journals about the weapons industry and global security issues. Vatanka says it will remain unclear whether the Ghurian weapons cache is linked to the Taliban until Afghan or U.S. authorities announce details of their joint investigation.
But the presence of Chinese weapons so close to the Iranian border is the strongest evidence to date suggesting Tehran has had at least an indirect role in arms shipments to Afghanistan.
"Whether the government or somebody in Iran could be buying arms from China and, without Tehran's knowledge, ship it over to Afghanistan -- on that volume of weapons -- I find that extremely unlikely," Vatanka says.
"I can only see that happening if somebody pretty senior and in an influential political position in Iran decided to facilitate that without letting everybody in the system know about it," he continues. "But they still had to be involved somewhere in the state machinery. We're not talking about rogue elements [in Iran]. Baluchi drug traffickers can't pull that kind of thing off."
Many analysts have noted that Shi'ite Iran and the Sunni Taliban had been firm enemies since 1998, when the Taliban regime controlled most of Afghanistan and executed nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif.
But Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Islamic militancy in the region and author of the book "Taliban," says that times appear to have changed. Now, with U.S. forces deployed some 60 kilometers from the Iranian border at Shindad Airfield in Herat Province, Rashid says Tehran and the Taliban have a common enemy.
"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. They have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small-time warlords in western Afghanistan," Rashid says. "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."
Still, Vatanka says it would be "almost irrational behavior" for Tehran to supply the Taliban with weapons. He says such a move would almost certainly lead to a negative domestic political backlash for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government.
For that reason, Vatanka says he is eagerly awaiting the assessment of Afghan and U.S. investigators about whether the arms in the Ghurian cache were stashed away by the Taliban or by one of several rival militia factions in Herat Province.
"The question is, what would get even a faction within Iran to make that type of a decision? Maybe you have excellent business ties between the Iranians and the Afghans on the other side -- not necesarily the central government in Kabul -- but local leaders in Herat who turn around saying, 'You Iranians are building roads and infrastructure here. You are setting up shops and factories. But for us to be able to guarantee that we can protect your business interests, we'll need to receive some arms.' That's an argument that one could put out: that the Iranians are essentially supplying not the Taliban, but Afghan partners to secure Iranian businesses and interests in western Afghanistan," Vatanka says.
To date, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to publicly support allegations of a direct link between Tehran and weapons shipments to the Taliban. "We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban. We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today," Karzai has said.
Vatanka says that as long as Karzai maintains that position, skeptics around the world will dismiss suggestions from Washington that Tehran is supplying Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
"From a U.S. point of view, if the insurgency in Afghanistan is essentially escalating based on Iranian assistance, then what Washington really needs to do is to provide far more evidence that points to that -- and get Mr. Hamid Karzai in Kabul and the regional governments in Afghanistan to back the U.S. up when it makes these claims against Iran," Vatanka says.
After the U.S. military failed to find the weapons of mass destruction allegedly being stockpiled in Iraq, Vatanka says, "the skeptics out there are saying, 'These [new allegations] are being made up by the U.S. to justify another war with Iran' -- which might not actually be the case. Iran might be involved. But because of the lack of evidence, the Iranians are saying, 'Who else is backing up the U.S. allegations?'"
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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