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Posted 6/9/2005 10:00 PM     Updated 6/9/2005 11:37 PM
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Iran helped overthrow Taliban, candidate says
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards fought alongside and advised the Afghan rebels who helped U.S. forces topple Afghanistan's Taliban regime in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the guards' former leader says.

In an interview by e-mail, Mohsen Rezaie, a candidate in Iran's presidential elections next week, says the United States has not given Iran enough credit. He says Iran played an "important role in the overthrow of the Taliban" in 2001 (Related: Full text of interview).

Even before U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, Iran backed the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of warlords and militias from the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities. The alliance fought the ruling Taliban, a regime dominated by majority Pashtuns that imposed a harsh Sunni Islamic government.

Current and former U.S. troops and officials confirm Iranians were present with the Northern Alliance as U.S. forces organized the rebels in 2001. They say U.S. forces had no interaction with the Iranians. They deny the Iranians made meaningful contributions on the battlefield.

Rezaie is the first to claim that Iran played a key role in capturing the Afghan capital, Kabul, at the climax of the war.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says he has "no knowledge of (Iranian) assistance." The CIA refused to comment.

Former CIA Afghan team leader Gary Schroen says there were two Iranian guard colonels attached to a Northern Alliance commander, Bismullah Khan, outside Kabul when U.S. Special Forces arrived in September 2001.

Schroen, author of First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan, says, "There was never any (U.S.) interaction (with the Iranians), but we saw them." He downplayed the Iranian role.

"We knew they were on the ground," says John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA.

Two officers who served with Task Force Dagger, the Special Forces group that conducted the first U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, say they knew Iranian agents or troops were present.

One, an Army Special Forces officer, says Iranians in the Northern Alliance stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif were sabotaging U.S. efforts by competing for the loyalty of local warlords. An Army Special Forces battalion commander says he encountered an Iranian intelligence agent in Kunduz, scene of one of the war's biggest battles. A third Army officer says U.S. forces reported the presence of Iranians in the city of Herat with alliance leader and warlord Ismail Khan. All three spoke on condition they not be named.

Predominantly Shiite Iran nearly went to war against the Taliban after the massacre of Afghan Shiites and nine Iranians in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.

The Bush administration became the prime backer of the Northern Alliance after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CBS' Face the Nation on Nov. 11, 2001, two days before the fall of Kabul, that there were places in Afghanistan "where there are some Iranian liaison people, as well as some American liaison people" working with the same Afghan forces.

James Dobbins, a former State Department official who worked with diplomats from Iran and other Afghan neighbors to create the first post-Taliban government, says the Iranians "were equipping and paying the Northern Alliance. Russia and India were also helping, but at the time, Iran was the most active."

It is unclear how many Iranians were present at the fall of Kabul. Rezaie says "some" guard commanders were there. "They were special forces for urban warfare (with) experience ... during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). They were very effective and active ... but American Army propaganda quickly claimed most of these achievements in its own name."

The Bush administration would have been loath to praise the Iranians, in particular the Revolutionary Guards. The guards are Iran's main vehicle for supporting groups the United States regards as terrorists, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, says Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

In 2002, President Bush labeled Iran a member of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

After the fall of the Taliban, Iran offered to help train and equip a new Afghan army, Dobbins says. The offer was rebuffed by the Bush administration, which accused Tehran of giving safe passage to fleeing members of al-Qaeda, backing Palestinian militants and trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Rezaie, 50, one of eight candidates permitted to run by Iran's clerical regime, appeared to be underlining Iran's role to draw attention to his candidacy and show a desire to improve relations with the United States. Other candidates in the election, including the front-runner, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, promise they would improve ties broken 25 years ago while Iran was holding U.S. diplomats hostage.

Rezaie says that "everything is possible" to restore relations. He praised the late Ronald Reagan and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for reaching out to Iran and says, "If they (the Americans) make us a rational offer," he will push for closer cooperation.

Contributing: Sean D. Naylor of Army Times, an independent publication owned by Gannett

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