As NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun intercepting sophisticated Iranian arms bound for the Taliban, U.S., NATO and Afghan officials...

WASHINGTON — As NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun intercepting sophisticated Iranian arms bound for the Taliban, U.S., NATO and Afghan officials are growing more concerned about Iranian policy in Afghanistan.

It’s long been conventional wisdom that Iran’s Shiite Muslim rulers would do nothing to destabilize Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s shaky government or aid the Taliban, Sunni Muslim militants against whom Iran nearly went to war in 1998. The Taliban obtains most of its weapons and supplies from the proceeds of opium trafficking and from Sunni supporters in Pakistan and Arab nations.

The recent seizures of Iranian arms by British troops in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province are challenging that assumption, however.

“Iran appears to be playing a very small role, but it appears to be increasing,” said Seth Jones, an expert at the RAND Corp. research center.

The intercepted weapons include so-called explosively formed penetrator bombs, devices that spit molten copper plugs that can penetrate American tanks, troop carriers and Humvees, said U.S. officials.

The Bush administration accuses Iran of supplying the same weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charge.

Still, U.S. officials and independent experts don’t think that Iran wants the Taliban returned to power.

Related developments


U.S. soldiers killed: Five Americans and two other soldiers died when a Chinook helicopter was apparently shot down Wednesday evening in Afghanistan’s most volatile province, a U.S. military official said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Gitmo suicide: A Saudi Arabian detainee died Wednesday at Guantánamo Bay prison, and the U.S. military said he apparently committed suicide. It would be the fourth suicide at Guantánamo since the prison camp opened in January 2002.

Escapee surfaces: Al-Qaida militant Abu Yahia al-Libi, who fled the Bagram Air Base prison north of Kabul in 2005, turned up in an online video posted Wednesday, assailing the Saudi royal family for its alliance with the United States.

Seattle Times news services

Iran quietly supported the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001, has poured some $200 million into reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and is profiting from brisk cross-border commerce. It also has been cooperating closely in other areas, including fighting trafficking in Afghanistan’s record-high opium production.

U.S. officials and experts think that Iran’s apparent shift in Afghanistan is part of a wider response by hard-liners, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to what they consider U.S. efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

The reported interceptions of Iranian arms in Afghanistan have coincided with an American air and naval buildup in the Persian Gulf, the detentions of five Iranian operatives in Iraq and a U.S.-led crackdown on Iraqi Shiite militias aligned with Iran.

Iran, they said, appears to be warning that it can raise the cost to the United States and its allies if the Bush administration continues pressing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program and its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and radical groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.