First there were the trucks. They started rolling into southern and western Afghanistan late last year, full of clothes and food and medical supplies for delivery to a few lucky warlords and their charges, courtesy of Iran. Then came the money, brought by Iranian intelligence agents who entered Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban to try to gain influence over local commanders. An Iranian general named Sadar Baghwani started showing up at Afghan mosques, reportedly telling Afghans to resist the U.S. presence in their country. "The Americans are infidels," he said. And then there are the weapons, which Western officials believe Iran is funneling directly to Ismail Khan--the strongman in the Afghan city of Herat and a longtime client of Tehran who has been reluctant to obey the new Afghan government in Kabul. That has led the U.S. and its Afghan allies to a familiar conclusion: Tehran is up to no good. "Iran's real objective," says Yousef Pashtun, secretary to the governor of Kandahar, "is to create as much instability as possible to the establishment of a permanent government in Afghanistan."
With thousands of American soldiers now calling Kandahar home and post-Taliban stability nowhere in sight, Washington isn't brooking Iranian mischief in Afghanistan. Three weeks ago, responding to reports that Iran was sending arms to pliant Afghan warlords and even harboring al-Qaeda fugitives, President Bush issued an ultimatum: "If they in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the government," he said, "the coalition will deal with them, in diplomatic ways initially." The line played well with most Americans, who are still inclined to believe the worst about Iran. Washington lists Iran as the top state sponsor of terrorism and regularly warns that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. last year cited an Iranian military officer for helping engineer the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Iran's hard-line establishment continues to support the destruction of Israel and has aided and abetted the radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Lebanon's Hizballah militia. The State Department said on Jan. 10 that "the weight of the evidence" suggests Iran was involved in the thwarted shipment of 50 tons of arms to the Palestinian Authority, despite Iran's denial. As TIME reported, Israel says the shipment was orchestrated by operatives close to Imad Mughniyah, a notorious Hizballah terrorist who has long enjoyed support from Iran.
Does that make Iran a first-order threat? The ongoing struggle between pro-Western reformists, led by democratically elected President Mohammed Khatami, and religious conservatives loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, certainly makes Iran a volatile power. The rhetoric of the country's religious leaders is peppered with anti-American bile, and powerful elements within Iran's conservative security establishment have in the past launched free-lance operations abroad as a way to undermine relations with the West. Now the discord is playing out in Afghanistan. While Khatami is trying to influence post-Taliban political arrangements without alienating the international coalition, U.S. officials believe, security operatives loyal to Khamenei may be stirring up unrest outside the Khatami government's command.