WASHINGTON—As NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun intercepting sophisticated Iranian arms bound for the Taliban, U.S., NATO and Afghan officials are growing more concerned about Iranian policy in Afghanistan.
It's long been conventional wisdom that Iran's Shiite Muslim rulers would do nothing to destabilize Afghan President Hamid Karzai's shaky government or aid the Taliban, Sunni Muslim militants against whom Iran nearly went to war with in 1998. The Taliban obtains the lion's share of its weapons and other aid from the proceeds of opium trafficking and from Sunni supporters in Pakistan and Arab nations.
The recent seizures of Iranian arms by British troops in Afghanistan's war-torn southern Helmand province are challenging that assumption, however.
"Iran appears to be playing a very small role, but it appears to be increasing," said Seth Jones, an expert at the RAND Corp., a research center that's close to the Pentagon.
The intercepted weapons include the first so-called explosively formed penetrator bombs, devices that spit molten copper plugs that can penetrate the armor of American tanks, troop carriers and Humvees, said U.S. officials who requested anonymity because the matter is classified.
The Bush administration accuses Iran of supplying the same weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charge.
Still, U.S. officials and independent experts don't think that Tehran wants the Taliban returned to power.
"The Iranians don't want the Taliban back," said Barnett Rubin, a leading scholar on Afghanistan who met with Iranian officials during a recent visit to Kabul. "That is a red line for them."
Tehran quietly supported the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001, still has better relations with Afghanistan than with any of its other neighbors do, has poured some $200 million into reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and is profiting from brisk cross-border commerce. Moreover, Tehran and Kabul have been cooperating closely in other areas, including fighting trafficking in Afghanistan's record-high opium production.
U.S. officials and experts think that Iran's apparent shift in Afghanistan is part of a wider response by hard-liners, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to what they consider the Bush administration's efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic.
The reported interceptions of Iranian arms in Afghanistan have coincided with an American air and naval buildup in the Persian Gulf, the detentions of five Iranian operatives in Iraq and a U.S.-led crackdown on Iraqi Shiite militias aligned with Tehran.
Iran, they said, appears to be sending a warning that it can raise the cost to the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere if the Bush administration continues pressing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program and its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and radical groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.
"They do want to bleed the United States and its allies," said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "What you are seeing now is potentially only a small taste of what could be done."
U.S. officials said the apparent Iranian message had been reinforced by other recent moves, including the potentially destabilizing expulsions of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees into western Afghanistan.
"I think they (the Iranians) are realizing that they can establish their significance by being a spoiler," said a senior Afghan official, who requested anonymity to avoid a public split with Iran.
Iran also is providing financial support for a new coalition of Karzai's political opponents, known as the United Front, which is led by former commanders of mujahedeen factions that fought the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and then the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
"They are pushing the screws in," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak about the issue publicly.
He and other officials said Iran also appeared to be hedging its bets in Afghanistan as Karzai's power waned amid stepped-up Taliban attacks and growing popular anger over civilian casualties from American airstrikes.