U.S. intelligence agencies have spotted scores of Iranian intelligence and military personnel deep inside Afghanistan working to destabilize the interim government.
The Iranians include agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Iranian spy service, and Iranian special forces troops from the Revolutionary Guards Corps, said officials familiar with intelligence reports.
According to the officials, the Iranians are working with several hundred Afghan fighters operating near the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif in an effort to undermine the pro-U.S. government now in place in Kabul.
The Iranian Islamic fundamentalists also are working to prevent the return of Afghanistan’s former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, from exile in Italy. He could return as soon as next month.
“They are armed to the teeth, and they have lots of money to buy people off” a common Afghan political tactic, one U.S. official said of the pro-Iranian fighters.
U.S. officials have said Iranians are operating near the Afghan border with Iran. But the new intelligence indicates an extensive covert action program in other parts of the country as well, the officials said.
Disclosure of the covert activities comes as the Iranian government announced yesterday that Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, will travel to Tehran next week for talks.
The Iranian operations are prompting heightened worries inside the Bush administration because of the fragility of the interim government in Afghanistan.
An Afghan Cabinet minister was assassinated last week by rival warlords.
“It’s a concern,” a senior official said of the covert Iranian activities. “As a neighbor of [Afghanistan], the Iranians have a particular interest in the region close to their border.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said last week that the administration had formally protested the Iranian activities to the Foreign Ministry of Iran. He said the Iranians are arming and financing Islamic fighters in Afghanistan who oppose the government now led by Mr. Karzai.
“We have given them [the Iranians] the information we have with regard to what we think is happening, particularly with regard to al Qaeda presence in Iran and movement across Iran,” Mr. Khalilzad said in an interview Feb. 15 with the British Broadcasting Corp.
U.S. officials said yesterday that the Iranians have sent 200 to 300 Afghan Islamic fighters from Iran to the area around Mazar-e-Sharif during the past several weeks.
The fighters are covert members of the Shi’ite group Sipha-e-Mohammed, or Soldiers of Mohammed, who were trained in Lebanon with the pro-Iranian terrorist group Hezbollah. The Sipha group is also known as Afghan Hezbollah.
Iranian special forces troops, members of the al Qods division of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, are working with the fighters, the officials said.
The Iranians around Mazar-e-Sharif appear to be working independently from Iranian intelligence and military personnel in two other parts of the country around Herat, in western Afghanistan, and near Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said Iran’s strategy appears to be to use pro-Iranian Afghan fighters to get control of Mazar-e-Sharif, a key crossroads city and the location of a celebrated Shi’ite mosque.
The Iranians’ objective appears to be destabilizing Afghanistan so that it rejects the presence of U.S. military forces and prevents the return of the former king.
Islamic fundamentalists now in power in Tehran fear that the return of the king will inspire pro-monarchist sentiments inside Iran, where a power struggle is under way between reformers and Shi’ite fundamentalists.
The shah of Iran was ousted in 1979, leading to the current Islamic dictatorship.
President Bush has said Iran is part of an “axis of evil” because of its repressive system and support for international terrorism. Iraq and North Korea are the other nations he has named.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi yesterday rejected U.S. assertions that Iran is trying to destabilize Afghanistan. “We are determined to remain in Afghanistan as long as the government and the people want us to do so,” he said in Tehran.
CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress two weeks ago that Iran was not doing enough to stop al Qaeda members who fled to Iran from Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld first raised the issue of Iranian help to fleeing al Qaeda fighters last month.
However, U.S. officials have said little about Iranian activities inside Afghanistan before Mr. Khalilzad’s comments last week.
One U.S. official said Iran is collaborating with the Kabul government’s defense minister, Gen. Abdul Qassim Fahim, who traveled recently to Iran.
“Neither the Iranian Revolutionary Guards nor Pakistan wants to see a stable Afghan government,” the official said.
“He’s using his partnership with Iranians, who are no longer opposing al Qaeda and the Taliban, against his own rivals for power,” the official said of Gen. Fahim.
The official said Mr. Karzai, the current Afghan interim leader, has little real power and is unable to stop the re-emergence of factionalism among Afghan warlords.
In Tokyo, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that Iran is not doing enough to stop terrorism.
Mr. Khalilzad, the special envoy, said in a PBS television interview broadcast Friday that Afghanistan is facing the threat of “warlordism returning” because of “multiple armies that continue to exist.”
Mr. Khalilzad said the risk of conflict is small but exists in areas near Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mr. Khalilzad said the United States is worried that Iran has two policies on Afghanistan one that is constructive and a second emanating from Iranian hard-liners and Revolutionary Guards that is negative.
He said Iranian assistance to members of the al Qaeda terrorism network has involved helping them to travel to other international locations outside Iran.