New York Times
April 18, 2007
By Michael R. Gordon
WASHINGTON, April 17 — A shipment of Iranian-made weapons bound for the Taliban was recently captured by allied forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s top officer said Tuesday.
It was the first time that a senior American official had asserted that Iranian-made weapons were being supplied to the Taliban. But Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was not clear if the Iranian government had authorized the shipment.
“We have intercepted weapons in Afghanistan headed for the Taliban that were made in Iran,” General Pace told reporters. “It’s not as clear in Afghanistan which Iranian entity is responsible.”
The shipment involved mortars and plastic explosives and was seized within the past month near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Markings on the plastic explosive material indicated that it was produced in Iran, General Pace said.
American military commanders in Baghdad have repeatedly asserted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran has provided components for powerful roadside bombs and other weapons to militants in Iraq. Iran has denied those allegations.
Iran has played a complicated role in Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Iran was a bitter foe. When the Taliban-controlled forces seized the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997, a group of Iranian diplomats there were executed.
Iran provided support to the Northern Alliance, which sought to overthrow the Taliban. It also cooperated with the United States in picking the current Afghan leader, President Hamid Karzai.
But as relations between Iran and the United States have become more confrontational, some intelligence reports have indicated that the Revolutionary Guards might arm the Taliban in order to weaken and tie down the American military in Afghanistan.
Bush administration officials have repeatedly argued that Iran has been seeking to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Some experts, however, assert that the Iranian strategy may be defensive.
“The overall Iranian role has been to work closely with us to bring Karzai into power,” said Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University. “However, the Iranians believe the No. 1 threat is an American attack to overthrow their government. They may do anything it takes to make the United States and its allies uncomfortable there.”
Asked how he thought the United States should respond to the purported Iranian support for militant groups opposed to American interests, General Pace said it should take military actions against Iranian-sponsored networks.
“I think we should continue to be aggressive inside of Iraq, and aggressive inside of Afghanistan, in attacking any element that’s attacking U.S. and coalition forces, regardless of where they come from,” General Pace said. He also said that the United States and other nations should use diplomacy with the Iranian government “to address Iranian interference.”
While General Pace did not say exactly when the Iranian-made arms in Afghanistan were seized or which forces captured the shipment, one American official said the episode occurred within the past week or so.
The Bush administration has charged that Iran has been supplying lethal support to Shiite militants in Iraq. Five Iranians who were captured in an American raid in January in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil are still in American custody. Iran has demanded their release, insisting that they are diplomats and not intelligence or military operatives.
According to American intelligence officials, the support to militant groups in Iraq is so systematic that it could not be carried out without the knowledge of some senior Iranian officials. “Based on our understanding of the Iranian system and the history of I.R.G.C. operations, the intelligence community assesses that activity this extensive on the part of the Quds Force would not be conducted without approval from top leaders in Iran,” a senior intelligence official said this year. The Quds Force is an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards.
General Pace has been much more cautious about asserting involvement by senior Iranian officials.
“We know that there are munitions that were made in Iran that are in Iraq and in Afghanistan,” General Pace said Tuesday. “And we know that the Quds Force works for the I.R.G.C.”
“We then surmise from that one or two things,” he said. “Either the leadership of the country knows what their armed forces are doing, or that they don’t know. And in either case that’s a problem.”