WASHINGTON - A media campaign portraying Iran as supplying arms to the Taliban guerrillas fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, orchestrated by advocates of a more confrontational stance toward Iran in the George W. Bush administration, appears to have backfired last week when Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeil, issued unusually strong denials.
The allegation that Iran has reversed a decade-long policy and is 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 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 Guardian published May 22 quoted an anonymous U.S. official as predicting an "Iranian-orchestrated summer offensive in Iraq, linking al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents to Tehran's Shia militia allies" and as referring to the alleged "Iran-al Qaeda linkup" as "very sinister".
That article and subsequent reports on CNN May 30, in the Washington Post Jun. 3 and on ABC news Jun. 6 all included an assertion by an unnamed U.S. official or a "senior coalition official" that Iran is following a deliberate policy of supplying the Taliban's campaign against U.S., 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, C4 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 which 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 McNeill denied flatly last week that there is any evidence linking Iranian authorities to those arms. Gates told a press conference on Jun. 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 that "some" of the arms in question might be going to Afghan drug smugglers.
The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McNeill, implied that the arms trafficking from Iran is being carried out by private interests. "[W]hen 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 June 5. "That's not my view at all."
Gates and McNeill 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, which protects 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 Apr. 19, is that the Taliban now controls areas on the Iranian border for the first time. Momand said the Taliban, which is awash in money from the heroin exports to Iran, buys small quantities of weapons in Iran and smuggles them back into Afghanistan.
But the Iranian government itself is not involved in the trade in arms, Momand insisted.
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The combination of anonymous statements by administration officials and the dismissal of the charge by the commander in the field contrasts sharply with the Bush administration's claims that Iran was sending armour-piercing IEDs to Shiite militias in Iraq last January and February. Those accusations, which were never backed up with specific evidence, were made publicly by Bush himself, the State Department and the U.S. 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 McNeill to go along with it suggests an effort by Cheney and his allies in the administration to do an "end run" around the official policy by conjuring up a region-wide Iranian offensive against U.S. forces.
Steve Clemons reported on his blog The Washington Note 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 has 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-Shiite divide but the Pakistani government patronage of the Taliban that has made it an irreconcilable enemy of Iran.
The line being pushed by the Cheney group in the 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 authorised to comment on the matter, told IPS that it indicates Iranian intelligence has had contacts with the top commanders of the Taliban's inner Shura -- the leadership council located in Kandahar.
However, the source also says 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 neoconservative 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 its support for al Qaeda terrorism.
Afghanistan specialist Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, who visited Afghanistan most recently in early 2007, says some elements of the Iranian government may be involved in arms trafficking but that it is "very small-scale support" and that Iran does not want to strengthen the Taliban.
NATO commanders in Pakistan have long been aware that the Taliban has been dependent on Pakistan for its arms and ammunition. The Telegraph reported Sunday that a NATO report on a recent battle shows the Taliban fired an estimated 400,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 1,000 mortar shells and had stocked over one million rounds of ammunition, all of which came from Quetta, Pakistan during the spring months.
Gareth Porter is an 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.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service