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    Middle East
     Jun 13, 2007
Gambit to link Iran to the Taliban backfires
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - A media campaign portraying Iran as supplying arms to the Taliban fighting US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, orchestrated by advocates in the US administration of a more confrontational stance toward Iran, appears to have backfired. Last week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeil, issued unusually strong denials.

The allegation that Iran had reversed a decade-long policy and was now supporting the Taliban, conveyed in a series of press



articles quoting "senior officials" in recent weeks, is related to a broader effort by officials aligned with US Vice President Dick Cheney to portray Iran as supporting Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaeda, to defeat the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

An article in the London Guardian published on May 22 quoted an anonymous US official as predicting an "Iranian-orchestrated summer offensive in Iraq, linking al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents to Tehran's Shi'ite militia allies" and as referring to the alleged "Iran-al-Qaeda linkup" as "very sinister".

That article and subsequent reports on CNN on May 30, in the Washington Post on June 3 and on ABC (American Broadcasting Co) news last Wednesday all included an assertion by an unnamed US official or a "senior coalition official" that Iran is following a deliberate policy of supplying the Taliban's campaign against US, British and other NATO forces.

In the most dramatic version of the story, ABC reported "NATO officials" as saying they had "caught Iran red-handed, shipping heavy arms, C-4 explosives and advanced roadside bombs to the Taliban for use against NATO forces".

Far from showing that Iran had been "caught red-handed", however, the report quoted from an analysis that cited only the interception in Afghanistan of a total of four vehicles coming from Iran with arms and munitions of Iranian origin. The report failed to refer to any evidence of Iranian government involvement.

Both Gates and McNeil denied flatly last week that there was any evidence linking Iranian authorities to those arms. Gates told a press conference on June 4, "We do not have any information about whether the government of Iran is supporting this, is behind it, or whether it's smuggling, or exactly what is behind it." Gates said "some" of the arms in question might be going to Afghan drug smugglers.

McNeil implied that the arms trafficking from Iran is being carried out by private interests. "When you say weapons being provided by Iran, that would suggest there is some more formal entity involved in getting these weapons here," he told Jim Loney of Reuters on June 5. "That's not my view at all."

Gates and McNeil are obviously aware of the link between arms entering Afghanistan from Iran and the flow of heroin from Afghanistan into Iran. It is well known that Afghan drug lords, who command huge amounts of money, have been able to penetrate the long and porous border with ease. They have undoubtedly been involved in buying arms in Iran with their drug proceeds for both themselves and the Taliban, who protect their drug routes. Smuggling is relatively easy because of the money available for bribery of border guards.

Another factor helping to explain the influx of arms from Iran, as noted by former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Momand in an interview on Pakistan's GEO Television on April 19, is that the Taliban now control areas on the Iranian border for the first time. Momand said the Taliban, who are awash in money from heroin exports to Iran, buy small quantities of weapons in Iran and smuggle them back into Afghanistan.

But the Iranian government itself is not involved in the trade in arms, Momand insisted.

The combination of anonymous statements by US administration officials and the dismissal of the charge by the commander in the field contrasts sharply with the administration's claims that Iran was sending armor-piercing improvised explosive devices to Shi'ite militias in Iraq in January and February. Those accusations, which were never backed up with specific evidence, were made publicly by President George W Bush himself, the State Department, and the US military command in Baghdad.

The fact that the officials making the accusation about Iran and Afghanistan are unwilling to go on the record and the refusal of Gates and McNeil to go along with it suggest an effort by Cheney and his allies in the administration to do an "end run" around official policy by conjuring up a regionwide Iranian offensive against US forces.

Steve Clemons reported on his weblog The Washington Note on May 24 that an aide to Cheney has told gatherings at right-wing think-tanks that Cheney is afraid Bush will not make the "right decision" on Iran and believes he must constrain the president's choices.

Iran long regarded the Taliban regime as its primary enemy and was the first external power to support Afghan forces in an effort to overthrow it. It is not merely a sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite divide but the Pakistani government's patronage of the Taliban that has made them irreconcilable enemies of Iran.

The line being pushed by the Cheney group in the US administration that Iran is supplying the Taliban with arms appears to be based on a highly imaginative reading of some recent intelligence reporting on Iranian contacts with the Taliban. A source with access to that reporting, who insists on anonymity because he is not authorized to comment on the matter, said it indicates that Iranian intelligence has had contacts with the top commanders of the Taliban's inner shura - the leadership council in Kandahar.

However, the source also said these intelligence reports do not provide any specific evidence of an Iranian intention to give weapons to the Taliban.

The Cheney group is evidently arguing within the administration that the mere existence of contacts between Iranian intelligence and Taliban commanders, combined with the presence of arms or Iranian origin, is sufficient reason to conclude that Iran has changed its policy toward the Taliban.

That argument parallels a key assertion made by Cheney and other neo-conservative officials in constructing the case for war against Iraq in 2002. They insisted that any contact between an official of the Iraqi government at any level and anyone in al-Qaeda was sufficient proof of the government's support for al-Qaeda terrorism.

Afghanistan specialist Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, who visited Afghanistan most recently this year, said some elements of the Iranian government may be involved in arms trafficking but it is "very small-scale support" and Iran does not want to strengthen the Taliban.

NATO commanders in Pakistan have long been aware that the Taliban have been dependent on Pakistan for their arms and ammunition. The London Telegraph reported on Sunday that a NATO report on a recent battle shows that the Taliban fired an estimated 400,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 1,000 mortar shells and had stocked more than a million rounds of ammunition, all of which came from Quetta, Pakistan, during the spring months.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

(Inter Press Service)


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