WASHINGTON — U.S.-led coalition forces in southern Afghanistan recently intercepted Iranian-made weapons that were being shipped to fighters for the Taliban, historically regional rivals of Tehran, the Pentagon's top general said Tuesday.
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 last month near the city of Kandahar, which serves as the military and administrative capital of the restive south. That region has been under renewed Taliban assault in recent months.
The Bush administration has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying insurgents in Iraq with sophisticated weaponry, including armor-penetrating explosive devices. Pace's remarks were the first by a senior U.S. official to indicate similar activities in Afghanistan.
Pace said it remained unclear who shipped 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 military writers. "We do not know, with the same clarity we know in Iraq, who was delivering those weapons or who were involved."
In Iraq, U.S. officials have accused the Quds Force, the international arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, but have said it remained unclear whether Quds operatives were acting at the behest of senior Iranian officials in Tehran.
The Bush administration has acknowledged that Iran has been active in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials have described the influence as benign and limited to the western provinces around Herat, an area with long-standing economic ties to Iran.
The Shiite Muslim government in Tehran has viewed the Taliban as an archrival and nearly went to war with it in 1998 when the Sunni-dominated fundamentalist group, which then ruled most of Afghanistan, killed nine Iranian diplomats in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif while attempting to tamp down a rebellion.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad recently have said that Iran has become less discriminating about its arming activities, choosing to support some Sunni Arab groups in Iraq.
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, said Iranian activities in Afghanistan were largely limited to training minority Shiite groups.
But Mohamed Mohaddessin, chairman of the council's foreign affairs committee, said Tehran was interested in sowing strife in Afghanistan to undermine the elected government of President Hamid Karzai and counter his Western backers.
"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.