Tehran's Game

Iranian meddling in neighboring Afghanistan raises new concerns about an old troublemaker

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Meanwhile, Khan's arms buildup in Herat has irked Pashtun warlords in southern Afghanistan, who say Iranian money and rifles have made their way to pro-Tehran commanders as far south as Helmand province, near Kandahar. Last week a group of 70 local leaders met in Kandahar to discuss mounting an anti-Khan offensive. An Afghan source told TIME that a proposed attack on Khan's forces was quashed at the last minute by a U.S. official who attended the meeting flanked by special-ops soldiers. But the warlords may be hard to restrain. "Our army is prepared. We will take Herat in no time," says a senior commander. "And we do not need the government's permission to do it."

The U.S. has started to take action against Iran's intrusions. Over the past two weeks, the white vapor trails left by B-52 bombers have been a fixture in the skies over Herat. The U.S. bombed a cache of Iranian arms that Khan was hoarding at the Khol-Urdu base on Herat's outskirts. Last week Khan tried to distance himself from Tehran, telling the bbc that he was "grateful" to the U.S. and has no quarrels with Kabul. He has also allowed U.S. special-ops forces to conduct search-and-destroy missions for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters holed up in Herat.

How far Iran's hard-liners will push to win proxies in Afghanistan remains to be seen. They say they support the establishment of a modern Islamic regime in Afghanistan, perhaps headed by Fahim or Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. "Iran respects the interim government and will cooperate with it," says Abbas Maleki, a conservative former foreign-policy adviser. "But naturally the Afghan people may want others in power, to reflect the real choice of the Afghan people."

Whether Iran will aggressively try to influence that choice may depend on whether Khatami can face down the conservatives, who in the past have supported operations to sabotage the reformist agenda. Khatami has largely purged the military and intelligence apparatus of the rogue squads and increased oversight of the unregulated religious funds that financed them. Reformists have tried to increase their influence through the foreign-policy commission in Parliament, which supports dialogue with the West and wants to cut funding to groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"We're willing to say anything the mullahs want," says a prominent legislator. "But we're trying to make sure not a cent more of Iranian money goes to these groups." Yet in recent months forces loyal to Khamenei have clamped down on the reformists. Hard-liners in the ruling Guardian Council have paralyzed the Parliament by blocking reform legislation, while the conservative-controlled judiciary has imprisoned one legislator and is prosecuting 30 others on trumped-up charges.

Some Western officials think that because of the uncertainty of Iran's political situation, the U.S. and its allies should throw their support squarely behind Khatami, despite his nationalism and refusal to give up Iran's weapons program. "It's up to the West to give him as much support as it can," says a senior British official. "You want to think about how you use the tools you have to help it make a break with terrorism."

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