Just hours after it was revealed that American soldiers had burned Qurans seized at an Afghan detention center in late February,Iran secretly ordered its agents operating inside Afghanistan to exploit the anticipated public outrage by trying to instigate violent protests in the capital,Kabul,and across the western part of the country,according to American officials.
For the most part,the efforts by Iranian agents and local surrogates failed to provoke widespread or lasting unrest,the officials said. Yet with NATO governments preparing for the possibility of retaliation by Iran in the event of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities,the issue of Irans willingness and ability to foment violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere has taken on added urgency.
One United States government official described the Iranian Embassy in Kabul as having a very active program of anti-American provocation,but it is not clear whether Iran deliberately chose to limit its efforts after the Koran burning or was unable to carry out operations that would have caused more significant harm.
In offering an overall view of the threat from Tehran,Gen. John R Allen,the senior allied commander in Afghanistan,told Congress in recent public testimony that Iran continued to fuel the flames of violence by supporting the Afghan insurgency. Our sense is that Iran could do more if they chose to, General Allen said. But they have not,and we watch the activity and the relationships very closely.
Iran has denied any government-backed effort to foment unrest in Afghanistan,but American officials see a pattern of malign meddling to increase Irans influence across the Middle East and South Asia. Iran appears to have increased its political outreach and arms shipments to rebels and other political figures in Yemen,and it is arming and advising the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Intelligence analysts emphasize that Iran can tap the formidable resources of Hezbollah,the Lebanese Shiite militant group.
American officials say they never took their eye off state-sponsored threats,but rising tensions with Iran have caused these organizations to re-emerge in the public eye. In Afghanistan,according to American officials,Iranian assistance to militants and insurgents is limited to training,money,explosive material,small arms,rockets and mortars.
What Iran has pursued relentlessly is an effort to pull the Afghan government away from the Americans,a strategy that has included payments to promote Irans interests with President Hamid Karzai.
One American intelligence analyst noted that Iran had long supported Afghan minorities,both Shiite and Sunni,and had built a network of support among Hazaras,Uzbeks and Tajiks. Iran has exercised other means of soft power, the analyst said,opening schools in western Afghanistan to extend its influence.