By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007
Iran has increased arms shipments to both Iraq's Shiite extremists and Afghanistan's Taliban in recent weeks in an apparent attempt to pressure American and other Western troops operating in its two strategic neighbors, according to senior U.S. and European officials.
In Iraq, Iranian 240mm rockets, which have a range of up to 30 miles and could significantly change the battlefield, have been used recently by Shiite extremists against U.S. and British targets in Basra and Baghdad, the officials said. Three of the rockets have targeted U.S. facilities in Baghdad's Green Zone, and one came very close to hitting the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital, according to the U.S. officials.
The 240mm rocket is the biggest and longest-range weapon in the hands of Shiite extremist groups, U.S. officials said. Remnants of the rockets bear the markings of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and are dated 2007, those sources said. The Tehran government has supplied the same weapon, known as the Fajr-3, to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia.
In Afghanistan, British forces have intercepted at least two arms shipments from Iran to Afghanistan's Helmand province since late April, the officials said. Such shipments reflect an unlikely liaison between two historic rivals, the Shiite theocrats in Iran and the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan, they said.
Both shipments were carried out after Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly put Iran on notice in mid-April that the United States was aware it was sending arms to the Taliban.
The intercepted shipments to Afghanistan included 107mm mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, C-4 explosives and small arms, identical to shipments to Iraqi militias around Basra in March, according to the U.S. and European sources, who track arms movements. The C-4 explosives in both shipments have fake U.S. markings, a common deceptive tactic, the sources added.
"We're concerned about what appears to be an escalating flow of Iranian arms shipments to extremists operating in Iraq and about Iran's stepped-up efforts to supply weapons to Taliban militants in Afghanistan," said a senior U.S. official who monitors Iranian activity in the region.
The new arms supplies reflect an increasing boldness by Iran, according to U.S. officials and officials from NATO countries. The secretive Quds Force, the branch of the elite Revolutionary Guard in charge of Iran's special operations abroad, is said by the U.S. officials to be behind the arms flow to militants in both countries.
In Iraq, U.S. special military operations as well as new diplomatic talks with Iran are focused on trying to limit the impact of Quds, U.S. officials said. "The imperative for this exercise is to stop Iran's lethal activities," said a senior U.S. official involved in Iran policy.
At U.S.-Iran talks last Monday, the first in almost three decades, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, laid out what he later described as "solid evidence" of Iran's role in arming the militant groups that are attacking American and Iraqi forces, as well as civilians. "We know the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force is the lead instrument in pursuing this policy and that they need to stop this behavior," Crocker said in a telephone briefing after the talks. "We know what they're doing."
Iran's goal is to prevent the return of stability in Iraq because it would be associated with an American victory, a senior administration official said.
Iran is after "managed chaos" that benefits its long-term interests, according to a recent report by the independent British American Security Information Council. "Iran's interest lies in supporting and training allies to influence their political positioning in a post-war, post-occupation Iraq."
"Most beneficial for Tehran would be the emergence of a friendly, preferably Shia Iraqi government, strong enough to keep Iraq together but too weak to pose a military threat," the report said. Iran's aim is to get a "security buffer zone for Iran against foreign invasion, and the political dominance of Iraqi Shia would likely deter future U.S. aggression against Iran."
Two U.S. military raids netted seven Quds Force operatives, including two top commanders, in December and January. The five mid-level operatives captured in Irbil in January remain in U.S. custody, while the Iraqi government pressured U.S. forces into releasing the two senior commanders captured in Baghdad.
For years, Iran supported the Taliban's rivals and was a de facto ally in the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that ousted the strict religious movement. But now, "the Iranians have more extensive intelligence links with the Afghan warlords and militias than anyone except Pakistan," said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution fellow formerly at the National Security Council, Pentagon and CIA. "If we now see a change in Iranian behavior and support for Taliban attacks on NATO forces, then that's a serious escalation that has ominous implications for the Afghan government."
Iran's goal may just be to exercise a "spoiler function" that would put pressure on the United States and NATO forces but not empower the Taliban long-term, said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Quds Force, commanded by Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has come under increasing scrutiny in the past year. Soleimani was among those targeted by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1747 for sanctions stemming from Tehran's failure to suspend uranium enrichment. Soleimani was identified in the resolution as one of the top officials engaged in nuclear or ballistic missile programs.