Published on Thursday, June 21, 2007 by Inter Press Service

US-IRAN: New Arms Claim Reveals Cheney-Military Rift

by Gareth Porter

http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/06/21/2019/

WASHINGTON - 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 publicly accused Iran for the first time of arming the
Taliban forces last week, 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 Jun. 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 Sep. 20, 2002, in referring to the
administration's accusation that Saddam Hussein had a programme 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.

Gen. McNeill repeated in an interview with U.S. News and World Report last
week a previous statement to Reuters that he did not agree with the charge.
McNeill minimised 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 Qaeda backers and could have been sold by low-level
Iranian military personnel.

McNeill's remarks underlined 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 which
were intercepted by NATO forces last spring had evidently come through that
Iranian province.

According to a report by Robert Tait of The Guardian Feb. 17,
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 Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who told Associated Press
on Jun. 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 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 Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf's truce with Islamic
separatists in those border provinces last year.

McNeill told a press conference Jun. 5 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 sceptical
about an anti-Iran propaganda line aimed at making it more difficult for
Bush to resist neoconservative pressures 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 the Burns
statements came during a visit to France that was aimed at ensuring the
French government would support tougher sanctions against Iran in the United
Nations 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 Defence Department appear to have adopted a more
ambiguous position on the issue. In the daily press briefing by State
Department on Jun. 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 Defence 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 Jun. 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 an historian and national security policy analyst. His
latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in
Vietnam", was published in June 2005.