In a development that underlines the tensions between the anti-Iran agenda of the George W. Bush administration and the preoccupation of its military command in Afghanistan with militant Sunni activism, a State Department official recently publicly accused Iran for the first time of arming the Taliban forces, but the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan rejected that charge for the second time in less than two weeks.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns declared in Paris on June 12 that Iran was "transferring arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan," putting it in the context of a larger alleged Iranian role of funding "extremists" in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Iraq. The following day he asserted that there was "irrefutable evidence" of such Iranian arms supply to the Taliban.
The use of the phrase "irrefutable evidence" suggested that the Burns statement was scripted by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. The same phrase had been used by Cheney himself on September 20, 2002, in referring to the administration’s accusation that Saddam Hussein had a program to enrich uranium as the basis for a nuclear weapon.
But the NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, pointed to other possible explanations, particularly the link between drug smuggling and weapons smuggling between Iran and Afghanistan.
General McNeill repeated in a mid-June interview with U.S. News and World Report a previous statement to Reuters that he did not agree with the charge. McNeill minimized the scope of the arms coming from Iran, saying: "What we’ve found so far hasn’t been militarily significant on the battlefield."
He speculated that the arms could have come from black-market dealers, drug traffickers, or al-Qaida backers and could have been sold by low-level Iranian military personnel.
McNeill’s remarks underscored the U.S. command’s knowledge of the link between the heroin trade and trafficking in arms between southeastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. The main entry point for opium and heroin smuggling between Afghanistan and Iran runs through the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan to the capital of Zahedan. The two convoys of arms that were intercepted by NATO forces last spring had evidently come through that Iranian province.
According to a February 17 report by Robert Tait of the Guardian, Sistan-Baluchistan province has also been the setting for frequent violent incidents involving militant Sunni groups and drug traffickers. Tait reported that more than 3,000 Iranian security personnel had been killed in armed clashes with drug traffickers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
McNeill further appeared to suggest in the interview with U.S. News that not all the arms coming from the Iranian side of the border were necessarily Iranian-made. Munitions in one convoy, he said, "were without a whole lot of doubt in my mind Iranian made," implying that the origins of the arms was not clear in other cases.
McNeill’s rejection of Burns’ accusation reflected the views of Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who told Associated Press on June 14 that it was "difficult" to link the arms traffic to the Iranian government. Wardak said the arms "might be from al-Qaida, from the drug mafia, or from other sources."
The clash between key civilian officials and the command in Afghanistan over the explanation for the arms entering Afghanistan from Iran followed a series of news stories in late May and early June quoting an anonymous administration official as claiming proof of a change in Iranian policy to one of military support for the Taliban. These anonymous statements of certainty about such a policy shift, for which no intelligence has ever been claimed, pointed to Cheney’s office as the orchestrator of the campaign.
Given the very small scale of the arms in question, Cheney’s interest in the issue appears to have much less to do with Afghanistan than his aim of ensuring that President George W. Bush goes along with the neoconservative desire to attack Iran before the end of his term.
The U.S. military command in Afghanistan, on the other hand, sees the external threat in Afghanistan coming from Pakistan rather than from Iran. U.S. commanders there are very concerned about the increase in Taliban attacks launched from Pakistan’s North Waziristan and South Waziristan following Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s truce with Islamic separatists in those border provinces last year.
McNeill told a June 5 press conference that there can be no "long-term stability" in Afghanistan "if there are sanctuaries just out of reach for both the alliance and the Afghan national security forces that harbor insurgents."
Apparently reflecting Cheney’s dominant influence on policy, the Bush administration has continued to defend the Musharraf government’s policy of compromise with the Pakistani Islamists and has said nothing publicly about the rise in Taliban attacks launched from Pakistan or the massive arms flow from Pakistan to Taliban forces.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan could be expected to be skeptical about an anti-Iran propaganda line aimed at making it more difficult for Bush to resist neoconservative pressure for a war against Iran. An attack on Iran could only make the task of coping with the threat from the Taliban more difficult.
Burns, who served in senior positions in the Bill Clinton administration, is part of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice‘s team, which is resisting Cheney’s pressures for preparations for an attack on Iran. But Burns’ statements came during a visit to France that was aimed at ensuring the French government would support tougher sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council if Iran did not suspend enrichment of uranium within a week or two.
So Rice apparently agreed to the new accusation against Iran in order to strengthen the U.S. argument for tougher sanctions—an administration policy with which she and Burns have both been identified since late 2005.
Meanwhile, despite the public statement by Burns indicting Iran, both the State Department and Defense Department appear to have adopted a more ambiguous position on the issue. In the daily press briefing by the State Department on June 13, spokesman Sean McCormack did not claim that Iran has actually changed its policy toward the Taliban, much less support the "irrefutable evidence" language used by Burns.
"At this point we can’t make that assessment," McCormack said in regard to a change in Iranian policy. Asked by reporters to explain the categorical language used by Burns, McCormack offered the rather awkward explanation that Burns was merely expressing the "concerns and suspicions" that everyone in the administration had about Iran’s intentions. That remark effectively undercut the use of the headline-grabbing language by Burns but was buried in media coverage of Burns’ remarks.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was then on his way to a NATO meeting on Afghanistan, did not repeat a previous dismissal of the charge of Iran’s arming the Taliban, but also failed to endorse the language used by Burns.
"I would say, given the quantities [of arms] 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," Gates said.
However, Gates, who had denied on June 4 that there was any evidence linking the arms trade to Iran, made the significant admission that he had seen no new intelligence supporting such speculation.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst who writes for the Inter Press Service. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.