By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007
An Iranian arms shipment destined for the Taliban was intercepted Sept. 6 by the international force in Afghanistan in what appears to be an escalating flow of weaponry between the two former enemies, according to officials from countries in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
The shipment included armor-piercing bombs known as explosively formed projectiles, the sources said, which have been especially deadly when used as roadside bombs against foreign troops in Iraq. The NATO-led force interdicted two smaller shipments of similar weapons from Iran into southern Helmand province April 11 and May 3.
"It's not the fact that it's qualitatively different, but this was a large shipment which got people's attention," a U.S. official in Washington said of the most recent interception.
This time, the arms were shipped into the western province of Farah, a vast but sparsely populated area, the sources said, indicating an attempt to find routes less likely to be discovered.
"They're clearly trying to vary their routes and not get caught," the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because the interdiction has not been formally publicized.
A senior Iranian official called the allegation baseless. "We have no interest in instability in Iraq or Afghanistan. We have good neighborly relations with the heads of state, who have praised Iran recently. Why should we send weapons to the opposition?" the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the Iranian government to comment on the allegation.
Iran, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, has long opposed the Taliban, a Sunni Muslim group with different ideas about society, government and religion. But their cooperation is based on common opposition to foreign, and particularly Western, troops in Afghanistan, according to the United States and officials from other countries in the international force.
"They're playing with the enemy. They have no love lost for the Taliban. The Taliban killed several Iranian diplomats. We believe it's about hurting the Americans and the international community," an official from one of the participating countries said on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence.
The Iranian arms shipments are a threat to the forces in Afghanistan but not enough to tip the balance in the Taliban's favor, the sources noted. But the explosively formed projectiles can also cause psychological and political damage because the loss of two or three troops for some of the three dozen countries in the force could lead them to reconsider their commitment, the sources added.
U.S. officials began to publicly accuse Iran of aiding the Taliban several months ago. R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in June that there was "irrefutable evidence" Iran was using its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps to arm the Taliban.
At the time, other officials were more cautious about earlier intercepted arms shipments. U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said there was no concrete evidence that the Iranian government was backing the Taliban. But he said it was possible that some elements in Iran were aiding the Taliban as a way of hedging their bets in Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said then that it was likely that Iranian officials at least knew about the shipments. "I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities that we're seeing, it is difficult to believe that it's associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it's taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," he said in June.
About the same time that the officials made their statements, the NATO-led force in Afghanistan divulged for the first time that it had discovered an explosively formed projectile in Afghanistan. The bomb was found before it could detonate. Officials said they did not know the bomb's origins.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has played down accusations that Iran is seeking to undermine his government by supporting the Taliban. He has referred to the two countries as "brothers" and said Iran has taken on a constructive role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
Correspondent Griff Witte in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.