Did Iran Help al Qaeda Escape?

  • Share
  • Read Later

The town of Herat, Afghanistan lies near the border with Iran

Many U.S. allies were mystified at President Bush's inclusion of Iran in his "axis of evil" last week. After all, Tehran had supposedly been cooperative in the war on terrorism, having condemned the September 11 attacks and offered landing rights for U.S. search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan. And the reformist movement headed by President Mohammed Khatami appeared to have made significant headway in curbing his country's export of terrorism, and in promoting dialogue with the West.

In making its case against Iran, the White House cited Iran's missile and alleged nuclear weapons programs, and pointed to an arms shipment sent to the Palestinian Authority. It also mentioned support for Afghan groups challenging the new government in Kabul, and for Palestinian groups deemed terrorists by the U.S.

But one complaint not mentioned by the administration may be evidence suggesting that Tehran may have helped senior Taliban and al Qaeda members escape from Afghanistan. An adviser to Heart warlord Ismail Khan told TIME that shortly before the U.S. bombing campaign began in October, a high-ranking Iranian official connected to the hard-line supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini had been dispatched to Kabul to offer secret sanctuary to Taliban and al Qaeda fugitives. The Iranian official was apparently trapped in Kabul during the bombing, and remained there until the Northern Alliance took control of the city. Although the Iranians despised the Taliban for their persecution of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan, their hatred for the U.S. may have run deeper.

And, according to sources in Herat, the Taliban and al Qaeda took the Iranians up on their offer.

Shortly before Herat's Taliban garrison fled in November, a convoy of 50 off-road vehicles carrying some 250 senior Taliban and al Qaeda members allegedly crossed over into Iran, using a smugglers' route through the hills about 20 miles north of the city. A Western diplomat in Afghanistan claims that groups of Taliban and al Qaeda are still threading their way through the mountains of central Afghanistan and heading for the Iranian border. "The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has an eye on everything that happens along the border," says the diplomat. "Of course they know that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are getting across." Once inside Afghanistan, the al Qaeda and Taliban could slip over to the Gulf States through Bandar Abbas and other Iranian ports. Conventional wisdom in Herat, according to Ismail Khan's aides and also elders of the city's large Shiite community, is that Tehran hard-liners, especially within the Revolutionary Guards, have a different political agenda from President Khatami for the war in Afghanistan — one they've been actively implementing to the benefit of the Taliban and al Qaeda.