| ||Evidence of Iranian Support for Afghan Insurgency Mounts|
By Sadeq Behman and Sudabah Afzali in Herat
Is Iran using Afghan soil to fight a proxy battle against the United States?
The young man, who would not give his name, was quite open about his mission.
"Our purpose is jihad against foreigners and the government of Afghanistan," he told IWPR "Many Muslims from other countries have come here for this."
A resident of Farah Province, which borders Iran in western Afghanistan, he identified himself as a member of Lashkar-e-Mohammad Rassoulullah (Soldiers of Mohammad the Prophet), a jihadi organisation that, he said, was supported by Iran.
"There are a lot of Iranians in our group," he said. "Many of them from the Iranian Baloch tribes. They say they have come to do jihad against America."
Tension has recently escalated between Kabul and Teheran, fanned by accusations that Iran is providing weapons and other types of support to the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The American ambassador to Kabul, William Wood, recently echoed these charges in a meeting with reporters. While stopping short of implicating the Iranian government in weapons deals, he insisted that Teheran was aware of the problem.
"There are clearly some munitions coming out of Iran going into the hands of the Taleban," he said. "We believe that the quantity and quality of those munitions are such that the Iranian government must know about it."
Lt Colonel Rahmatullah Safai, regional police commander for Afghanistan's western region, told IWPR that weapons clearly marked as made in Iran had been found in Herat Province. Like the US ambassador, he interprets this as a sign that Iran is supporting Afghanistan's growing insurgency.
"Recently, we found three anti-vehicle mines that were marked ?SPI' (Sepah-e-Pasdaran of Iran or The Revolutionary Guard), that were found by our police in the Tirkash area of Herat Province, which is located two kilometres from the Iranian border," he said.
Colonel Shah Jehan Noori, police chief of Ghor Province, also said that the authorities had found a weapons depot including 40 anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines made in Iran and Russia. "We have transferred these weapons to the capital for further investigation," he told IWPR.
Iran denies that it is meddling in Afghanistan's already troubled affairs, and accuses its enemies of conducting a campaign against Teheran for their own purposes.
"The West has been waging a psychological war against Iran since the victory of the Islamic revolution," said Mohammad Ali Najafi Manesh, consul of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Herat Province.
"They have been accusing Iran of interference in the Middle East, of violating human rights, but now that America is losing in Afghanistan, it tries to cover this up by launching a propaganda war."
Relations with the West, particularly America, have been strained since the revolution of 1979, when the US-friendly Shah Reza Pahlavi fled Iran, and the Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. In November 1979, a group of Iranian militants took approximately 70 American diplomats hostage at the US embassy in Teheran, and held them for over a year.
Over the past two years, since the fiery and controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency, tensions have escalated still further.
The Iranian consul pointed to Musa Qala, the district in northern Helmand where the Taleban have taken over, ejecting central government officials and imposing their own regime on residents, unchallenged by the Afghan army or foreign troops. The barrage of accusations against Iran was meant as a "Wag the Dog" type of distraction from this clear defeat, he insisted.
But according to Manesh, stability in Afghanistan is very clearly in Iran's interests.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has looked to Afghanistan positively, and Afghanistan's internal security is very important to Iran. We have donated 560 million US dollars to Afghanistan, how is it possible for us to sabotage it?" he said.
He categorically denied that the seized weapons were of Iranian origin.
"All of our weapons are made under the direct supervision of the ministry of defence and distributed to Iranian security forces," he said. "All weapons have the ministry's mark on them, but these weapons [that were seized] are stamped SPI. It is just another sign of a plot against the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The West was trying to undermine the existing good relationship between Afghanistan and Iran, he added.
"But I am sure that these efforts will not be successful," he insisted.
So far, Manesh is right. Afghan president Hamed Karzai has consistently refused to join the growing chorus of condemnation against his neighbour to the west, and recently reiterated that Iran and Afghanistan were good friends and partners.
But inside the country, evidence is mounting of cooperation between Iranians and the insurgency ? although it remains unclear whether this is backed by Teheran.
A source inside the Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that there was Iranian influence in anti-government efforts in western Afghanistan.
"We have information that Balochis from Iran in cooperation with Sepah-e-Pasdaran are active from Farah to Herat, under the name of Lashkar-e-Mohammad-Rassoulullah as well as the Jihad-e-Ansar group and others," he said.
Those recruited into the ranks of these groups are paid generous salaries, from 200 to 1200 US dollars a month, far above Afghanistan's average wage of 60 to 100 dollars. "This is how they encourage people to join them," he said.
But no one will come right out and accuse the government in Teheran of sponsoring these efforts. The young man who claimed to be working with the Soldiers of the Prophet Mohammad said that his colleagues were acting independently.
"The Balochi people of Iran and other Iranians say that they have come to do jihad against America voluntarily. They were not sent by the government of Iran," he told IWPR.
The Baloch tribes in Iran have a history of opposition to the Teheran government. Baloch, like Iraq's Kurdish population, see themselevs as an oppressed minority. They are also from a different branch of Islam than the overwhelming majority of Iranians, who are Shia. The Baloch, like most Afghans, including the fundamentalist Taleban, are Sunni.
Colonel Sayed Aqa Saqeb, police chief of Farah Province, confirmed that authorities had seen armed Balochi groups from Iran operating in border areas many times, but said that he could not state with certainty that they had been sent by the Iranian government.
"We are still investigating," he told IWPR.
Saqeb added that many Iranians had been killed during NATO bombing raids on opposition strongholds in the region.
"The Taleban showed the people of Bakwaa district (in western Afghanistan) the body of a dead Iranian, and said he had come to do jihad against the Americans," Saqeb told IWPR. "This was just a tactic to turn people against the government and against the foreign forces."
Manesh, the Iranian consul in Herat, acknowledges that there are Baloch tribes in Iran that oppose the central government. But he makes the counter-claim that they are being supported by the USand Britain in order to weaken Teheran.
"If [these Balochis] are active beyond the borders of Iran, it is because they have no place inside the country and Iranians do not support them," he said.
The scandal has reached the highest levels of international diplomacy.
Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, told CNN last month that the weapons seized in Afghanistan were "irrefutable evidence" that Iran was violating international law. He also linked the weapons directly to the government.
"It's coming from the Revolutionary Guard corps command, which is a basic unit of the Iranian government," he said.
Des Browne, UK defence secretary, also recently told Bloomberg News that weapons were flowing into Afghanistan from Iran.
"We have successfully interdicted a flow of arms from across the Iranian border into Afghanistan," he said, according to the news agency.
Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, a political analyst in Herat, told IWPR that Iran was playing a double game in Afghanistan. On the one hand, said Shahir, Iran wants to cooperate with and influence Afghanistan's central government, while on the other hand, it is trying to challenge the US by supporting the insurgency.
"The present government of Afghanistan is more beneficial to Iran than the radical Sunni regime of the Taleban," he said. "But look at the long-term dispute between Iran and the West. The United States is a strategic enemy of Iran, and Iran is trying to challenge the foreign forces, particularly the American and the British, by giving the opposition weapons and other facilities."
Iran was hoping to fight the US by proxy, he added.
"Iran is hoping that the war in Afghanistan lasts many years, so that the United States gets bogged down there," he told IWPR. "Iran sees the possibility of an attack from the United States, and is hoping to keep the war on Afghan soil. It would be much less expensive for them than a war inside Iran."