The discovery of Iranian-made weaponry in Afghanistan has led US and British officials to accuse Iran of arming the Taliban militias now battling US and coalition forces. The find raises new and troubling questions about the state of American-Iranian relations.
CNN reported that the weapons, which were seized by coalition forces as they were smuggled across the Iranian-Afghan border, include types that have been used effectively against US troops in Iraq.
Coalition officials in Afghanistan said they have intercepted Iranian-made AK-47s, C-4 plastic explosives and mortars. One explosively-formed penetrator bomb (EFP) that was found can pierce American armor, a NATO official said.
The EFP is similar to the weaponry the United States says Iran has provided to militants in Iraq, but the NATO official said the weapon has not been traced directly to the Iranian regime.
Iranian officials have denied the allegations, while outside experts speculate that Iranian splinter groups are more likely candidates than the Iranian government. Dealing arms to the Taliban would be a step outside the norm for Iran. In 1998, Iran nearly went to war with Afghanistan, then controlled by the Taliban regime, after it killed eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist. Additionally, the Taliban, a Sunni organization, has traditionally avoided dealing with Shiites. Iran is a predominately Shiite nation and seeks support mostly from other Shiites. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the sect from which Iran seeks support.]
Since America's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Iran has played an active role in thwarting the Taliban, reportsMcClatchy.
U.S. officials and independent experts don't think that Iran wants the Taliban returned to power.
Iran quietly supported the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001, has poured some $200 million into reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and is profiting from brisk cross-border commerce. It also has been cooperating closely in other areas, including fighting trafficking in Afghanistan's record-high opium production.
Still, some experts believe that the Iranian government may be officially sanctioning the sale of weapons to the Taliban as a means of indirectly battling the US. "Iran's apparent shift in Afghanistan is part of a wider response by hard-liners, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to what they consider U.S. efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic," reports McClatchy.
This is not the first time that Iran has been accused of trafficking weapons to the Taliban. In April, coalition forces discovered Iranian-made weapons in Kandahar, Afghanistan, though officials could not establish a clear link between Iran and the Taliban regarding the weapons, reported Al Jazeera.
The Daily Telegraph reports that coalition forces in Afghanistan regularly deal with smugglers trying to transport weapons into the country along the Afghan-Iranian border.
British and American special forces have intercepted a number of truckloads of weapons crossing the Iranian border into Nimroz province.
The British embassy yesterday told The Daily Telegraph: "Iran has publicly expressed its support for stability in Afghanistan and has a vested interest in supporting efforts against the Taliban. Any Iranian links to illegal armed groups either through supply of munitions, training or funding would be unacceptable."
However, one high-ranking Afghan government official said: "We are absolutely convinced that the Iranian intelligence service is providing support to the Taliban."
Iran's ambassador to Kabul, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, said: "Our belief is that a return of extremism to Afghanistan not only has a negative effect for Afghanistan but also for other countries in the region and beyond."
The allegations come at a tense time for American-Iranian relations. Although the US and Iran recently engaged in their first senior-level talks in nearly 30 years, the talks dealt largely with Iran supplying Iraqi Shiites with munitions. Additionally Iranian officials have detained four American citizens, three of whom have been charged with spying. Reuters reports that the incident underscores Iran's distrust of US intentions.
The United States has denied the three [accused] are U.S. spies and demanded their release, saying that they are private citizens who went Iran to meet family and have ordinary professional contacts.
Tehran accuses Washington of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic Republic through what it calls a "velvet revolution."
Despite latent hostility between Iran and the US, neither nation appears interested in escalating the situation at present. Speaking about the possibility of Iran running guns to the Taliban, "one analyst called it a game of 'managed chaos,' just enough to bloody America's nose in Afghanistan," reported CNN.