Iran secretly agreed to assist the Taliban in its war against U.S. forces in October 2001, according to the transcript of a high-level Taliban official's tribunal session at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba. The seven-page transcript, as well as thousands of pages of similar documents, was released by the Pentagon on March 3 in response to litigation brought by the Associated Press.
The detainee is not named in the transcript released by the Pentagon, but, according to allegations brought by the U.S. government, the detainee was "the governor of Herat Province in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2001." As governor of Herat, which is the westernmost province in Afghanistan and is situated on the Iranian border, he "worked for Mullah Omar" and "had control over police and military functions in Herat to include the administration of the Taliban's two largest divisions." (According to a list of former Taliban officials prepared by the United Nations, the governor of Herat was a man named Maulavi Khair Mohammad Khairkhwah.)
The detainee admitted that he was the governor of Herat, but denied that he worked solely for Mullah Omar or that he oversaw any aspect of the Taliban's military.
The government also alleges that he at one time served as "the Taliban spokesperson for the BBC and Voice of America;" a charge the detainee did not deny. Nor did he deny a third, more astonishing allegation:
Detainee was present at a clandestine meeting in October 2001 between Taliban and Iranian officials in which Iran pledged to assist the Taliban in their war with the United States.
In response to this allegation, the former governor of Herat admitted:
Yes, I participated in that meeting with the Iranians. There was a committee that came from Kandahar and I joined them and was just sitting there. They were conducting the meeting. My job was for the security of this committee. I was not the sole representative of this committee to talk with the Iranians. They were responsible; my job was to provide security and safety for the committee. If I were [sic] responsible for the meeting, conducting the meeting, and I was the representative then why would the committee come from Kandahar. The security was needed because they were not in a safe building. It was not a highway where everything would be safe. The meeting took place in an area off the main road where safety and security was necessary. That's the reason I went to the meeting.
Upon further questioning the detainee explained his role in setting up security for the meeting:
Q: When you provided security at this meeting with the Iranians, was the security police officers or military? What type of security was it?
A: There were armed [sic] post, they were doing the security. I knew the area and the crossing points, I new how to get to that area safely, so I was like a guide for them. There were post [sic] and they would not let people across the border, this was like a restricted area. I went with them and told the post this was an official meeting and told them to let us cross the area. I didn't have a gun.
Later, the detainee reiterated that the Taliban sent representatives from the central government:
The meeting with the Iranians, it was designed and conducted by the committee that came from Kandahar, which was the central government at the time. I was just a security member.
There is no information in the transcript identifying the Iranian representatives at the meeting. Nor is there any information on what actual support the Iranians provided, if any.
Importantly, the government's allegations and the detainee's corroborating testimony are at odds with the intelligence community's conventional wisdom regarding Iran's relationship with the Taliban. After years of mutual animosity, it was assumed prior to the war in Afghanistan that the Iranian regime would celebrate the fall of the Taliban. Each government had supported the other's opposition and diplomatic tensions flared repeatedly throughout the last several years of the Taliban's reign.
But the recently released transcript corroborates earlier reporting on Iran's cooperation with the Taliban, as well as al Qaeda. Afghani opposition sources reported in early 2002 that the Iranians helped Taliban and al Qaeda members escape approaching U.S. forces through the Herat province. For example, Time Magazine reported:
An adviser to [Herat] 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."
There is no evidence in the newly released transcript that al Qaeda representatives attended the meeting in October 2001 in Herat. And the deposed governor pleads with the tribunal to "not accuse any of the Taliban as being al Qaeda." He also denies that there was any significant al Qaeda presence in Herat adding, "we would not do anything for al Qaeda."
But the detainee's denials ring hallow. Given what we know about al Qaeda's intimate relationship with the Taliban, Abu Musab al Zarqawi's training camps in Herat, and al Qaeda's history with Iran, it would behoove U.S. officials to press for additional information on the meeting, if they haven't already.
The importance of this allegation goes beyond understanding Iran's past behavior. Currently, some analysts assume that fear of U.S. retribution limits Iranian interference in Iraq and support for al Qaeda. But if Iran's leadership agreed to set aside its differences with the Taliban in order to stymie American operations against al Qaeda, then such assumptions are clearly no longer valid.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.