WASHINGTON -- U.S.-led coalition forces in southern Afghanistan recently intercepted Iranian-made weapons that were being shipped to fighters for the Taliban, historically Tehran's regional rivals, the Pentagon's top general said yesterday.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the munitions, which included mortars and C-4 explosives, were captured within the past month near Kandahar, which serves as the military and administrative capital for the restive south, the region of Afghanistan that has found itself under renewed Taliban assault in recent months.
The Bush administration has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying insurgents in Iraq with sophisticated weaponry, but Pace's remarks were the first by a senior U.S. official to indicate similar activities in Afghanistan.
Pace said it remains unclear who specifically was responsible for shipping the arms, but that markings on the explosives enabled U.S. intelligence to identify them as Iranian-made.
"It is not as clear in Afghanistan which Iranian entity is responsible," Pace told a group of military writers. "We do not know with the same clarity we know in Iraq who was delivering those weapons or who were involved."
The general's comments come as the Pentagon has been increasing pressure on Tehran over supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq, including "shaped charges" that can penetrate U.S. armor.
U.S. officials blame the Quds Force, the international arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, but have said it remains unclear whether Quds operatives are acting at the behest of senior government officials in Tehran.
The Bush administration has said that Iran is active inside Afghanistan, but U.S. officials have largely described the influence as benign and limited to the western provinces around Herat, an area with long-standing economic ties to Iran.
Historically, Tehran has viewed the Taliban as rivals. Shiite-led Iran nearly went to war with the Sunni-dominated Taliban in 1998 when the Kabul government captured and killed dozens of Iranians in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif while attempting to tamp down a rebellion.
But U.S. military officials in Baghdad have said in recent weeks that Iran has become more ecumenical in its arming activities, choosing to support some Sunni groups in Iraq.
Anti-government Iranian exile groups have insisted that Quds Force operatives have been active in Afghanistan for several years. The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group of opposition exiles that sometimes compiles accurate intelligence about the current regime's nuclear and military operations, said those activities have largely been limited to training minority Afghan Shiite groups.
But Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the council's foreign affairs committee, said Tehran is interested in sowing strife in neighboring Afghanistan.
"Export of fundamentalism and terrorism to neighboring and Islamic countries has been one of the pillars of the clerical regime's foreign policy," Mohaddessin said.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.