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Negotiating With the Taliban: Iran’s No-Win Choice in Afghanistan

As Taliban forces captured Afghanistan’s northwestern city of Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998, armed insurgents attacked the Iranian Consulate there, killing 10 diplomats as well as an Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) correspondent who had sought refuge in the diplomatic mission. Iranians hold to date this tragic memory as one of the gravest crimes committed by the Taliban. The incident immediately drew fury among Iranians, pushing the nation to the brink of an all-out military strike against the Taliban before it was halted at the order of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Twenty-three years after the murder of the Iranian diplomats and journalists in Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to deny any role in the killings. Some pundits in Iran believe that the raid on Iran’s Consulate had been arranged with the intelligence service of a third nation, most likely Pakistan.

With the anniversary of the incident fast approaching, Afghanistan is once again the dominant topic of conversation within Iran. As the United States completes its troop withdrawal, the Taliban offensive has led to a severe escalation of violence on Iran’s border, and Iranians understandably fear that they could be put in danger from this development.

To stave off these concerns, the Islamic Republic has improved its relationship with the Taliban; it held several years of secret talks with the group, whose senior officials had often traveled to Tehran. Iran’s outgoing foreign minister Javad Zarif openly welcomed Taliban officials in Tehran twice in recent months, and the Taliban delegation also met with senior security officials in the Iranian capital. In parallel, some media outlets close to the clerical regime and military bodies have sought to paint a different, more appealing picture of the Taliban, comparing them favorably to other notorious terror groups such as ISIL and al-Qaeda.

Iran, which has maintained a policy emphasizing that foreign forces must leave Afghanistan, considers the reemergence of the Taliban as the symbol of “US failure and expulsion” from Afghanistan. Abdollah Ganji, the managing editor of the ultraconservative Javan newspaper, wrote in an editorial that the “expulsion of US troops from Afghanistan was the objective sought by Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (the Iranian military commander killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq).”

“If the Taliban have brought this important wish into fruition, our national interests and security have been secured as well,” he wrote.

In the same vein, the hardline Mashregh news website, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), wrote, “After years of war in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, the U.S. is practically handing them over to Iran… It is now the Biden administration’s turn to empty another theater in the Middle East in favor of Iran.”

Some media with ties to Iran’s hardline camp have even scorned international media for its coverage of the Taliban. These outlets have argued that world media is biased against the Taliban and has portrayed them as more violent than they really are.

The Taliban Launches a Charm Offensive…

The eyebrow-raising pro-Taliban stance adopted by pro-regime media in Iran has elicited widespread reaction inside Iran, as well as among Afghans. Many have wondered how a “terrorist”-labelled group came to be recognized by some Iranian officials as a “noble movement”. Some experts and analysts see such stances vis-à-vis the Taliban as “risible, inexpert and unrealistic”, citing the Taliban’s background and the reality of the group’s horrific conduct on the ground.

For their part, the Taliban have recently embarked on a campaign to improve their image in the minds of Iranians. In one prestige-regaining bid, Taliban representatives traveled to the Iranian embassy in Doha last year to express their condolences after Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in a terrorist attack blamed on Israel.

Furthermore, Taliban officials have regularly given interviews to Iranian media in recent weeks, as the infamous group is making every attempt to allay concerns and give solid assurances about fundamental shifts in its longstanding policies. Commenting on the future of ties with Iran, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Iranian Ensafnews in mid-July, “Doubtlessly we intend to establish brotherly and strong bonds with the Islamic Republic of Iran […] Iran is our neighbor with which we share values. Therefore, we need to have good ties based on mutual confidence with Iran. We will try our best in favor of a confidence-building situation. However, the Iranian side would have the choice to trust us or not.”

… But Iranians Are Still Suspicious

Although the Taliban spokesmen have laid emphasis on restraint and good relationships with Iran and other neighboring countries, most Iranians remain mistrustful of the infamous group. There is growing concern that the Taliban’s successful re-establishment of its desired “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” would give substantial aid to the more than 20 terrorist groups operating in the war-torn country, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K). If these groups continued their activities with tacit or overt Taliban support, a new wave of violence and insecurity could be triggered along Iran’s porous eastern borders.

And while Iran’s conservative establishment has attempted to establish better relations between the Taliban and Kabul government, many Iranians remain unconvinced. In an editorial in its July 14 issue, the reformist Etemad newspaper wrote: “In the event, they come to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban would by no means be reliable.”

“The Islamic Emirate that the Taliban envisages to establish [in Afghanistan] has a clear meaning. In case they manage to rise to power there, they would become instruments in the US, Saudi Arabia, and other powers’ hands against Iran”, warned the paper, indicating that the group would in the long term degenerate into a serious threat to Tehran.

Moreover, while Iran has publicly embraced the Taliban, their actions reflect suspicion. The closure of the Iranian Consulate in Balkh, deployment of troops and military equipment, and full combat readiness of Iran’s military forces – both regular Army and the IRGC – along the 900-kilometer shared border with Afghanistan in recent weeks to counter any possible threats by the Taliban rebels’ into the Iranian territory could be interpreted as signs of Iranian leaders’ mistrust of the Taliban and the fragility of their ties.

Dealing with Afghanistan falls within the scope of authority of the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force; nonetheless, this crisis has befallen Iran at the worst time. Any insecurity scourge along eastern borders, at a time when Iran is already faced with numerous political and economic woes, could engage a substantial portion of the Islamic Republic’s military capacity in securing the border with Afghanistan, thereby undermining Iran’s hand in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – the three nations where Iran wields significant influence.

Meanwhile, the Iranian parliament’s research center (MRC) released a report on July 4, implicitly warning Iranian officials about the extension of the conflict in Afghanistan and the consequences of a possible Taliban takeover. The report touched on the emergence of the terrorist threat to Iran, restrictions on the Shia minority in Afghanistan, and the possible influx of Afghan refugees to Iran. It recommended that Tehran engage in talks with a view to countering the “escalation of the military conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government”.

That might be based on such grounds that after more and more areas fell in rapid succession to the Taliban following the US gradual military drawdown, Iranian state media and analysts criticized the “irresponsible” U.S. exit.

As videos depicting the Taliban’s horrific acts of violence have gone viral on the Iranian internet, some state media have revised their previous analysis of the resurgent group. The hardline Kayhan newspaper, closely tied to the Iranian supreme leader’s office, made a U-turn several days after claiming “the Taliban have fundamentally changed”. The newspaper corrected itself on July 9, writing that “the attitude the Taliban have adapted to control Afghanistan would imply forcing all other tribes and denominations to full obedience to their absolute rule, i.e. modern totalitarianism. Should this group dominate Afghanistan, it will renege on its pledges and take up arms to reduce others to silence.”

Some senior Shia scholars in Iran have also reacted to the recent events transpiring in Afghanistan, saying that placing trust in the Taliban “with a record of mischief and massacre” would be “a big and irreparable mistake”.

To ease some of these concerns and perhaps end such criticisms, Ismail Qaani who has had decades-long involvement in Iran’s eastern neighbor and became the successor of assassinated IRGC Quds force leader, traveled to the shrine city of Qom last week and met with religious leaders and senior ayatollahs there.

Flexibility to Taliban Resurgence

When President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the regime’s favored candidate in the 2021 elections, takes office in August, the Taliban issue will be the second most important foreign policy issue for his administration to handle, after the revival of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. In this regard, Raisi has his work cut out for him; some Iranian elites are very critical of the Islamic Republic’s approach to the Taliban, while others with their own ambiguities and doubts remain on the defensive.

Although cultural bonds and geopolitical factors have given Tehran the chance to wield significant clout in Afghanistan during the two decades following the 2001 U.S.-led removal of the Taliban from power, Iran is fully conscious that the group’s current and future empowerment would squander Iran’s huge investment in Afghanistan’s political, economic, cultural and religious domains and cause the Islamic Republic to lose influence there.

For now, Iran is facing limited options in dealing with the Afghan crisis. Tehran has faced a difficult choice between two bad options: throw its full support behind the Taliban, or instead try to spite them by helping the frustrated and weak Afghan government. In light of Taliban advances and the fact that Tehran has to deal with the Taliban and not the Afghan government along their joint border, and given the corruption, inefficacy and political infighting in Kabul, Tehran has sought to follow a third pragmatic approach, striking a balance into its ties with both sides of the conflict. This approach reflects Iran’s suspicion of both sides: while Iran does not trust the Taliban, the US-dominated Afghan government is clearly not an Iranian ally, either.

Iran’s red line in Afghanistan today is the establishment of an entirely Taliban-run government. Iran has taken the position that the Afghan government has to settle its problems with other groups through dialogue. Ayatollah Khamenei has told Iran’s foreign ministry to “take into consideration the interests of both nations and not just Iran’s national interests in any policymaking on the Afghan issue.”

To that effect, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said: “The Taliban are not and will not be the whole of Afghanistan. … What is important for us is the formation of a broad-based government in which all Afghan groups would be represented and reaching a peaceful and sustainable solution in this country.”

If the Taliban choose to not put all their eggs in one basket and rely solely on their traditional ally, Pakistan, they would have to establish untainted ties with neighboring countries, particularly Iran. Cognizant of this important point, and ruling out the possibility of the Taliban taking full power in Afghanistan, Tehran is trying to obtain some guarantees from the Taliban on border security and adoption of concessions protecting the Shias there.

Today, the Taliban represent an unfortunate social reality. Over the past twenty years, hundreds of thousands of foreign troops fought and failed to destroy them. The Taliban enjoy a social base and high levels of support in some parts of Afghanistan, and therefore their existence, repugnant though it is, must be recognized. From the Trump and Biden administrations to Russia, China, India, and other regional nations, all players in the Afghan conflict have established communications with them. For its part, Iran is in contact with the warring parties in Afghanistan. The Iranian foreign ministry in July hosted the first significant peace talks in months between high-ranking Afghan delegations, including Taliban officials.

The establishment of a participatory government in Afghanistan might look like a wild dream which might never come true. However, what is clear is that the Taliban may be curbed only through consensus and close and sincere cooperation between all states involved in the crisis in Afghanistan. No nation can guarantee its own interests by ignoring those of its neighbors in the long term.

Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran. Formerly he was the chief editor and producer at PressTV website, the Iranian state-owned English news, and documentary network (2015-2019). He was also a political editor at the Financial Tribune (2014-2015) and the Tehran Times (2010-2014). Hashemi is an alumnus of the ‘Heinz- Kühn Foundation’ in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. His work and commentary have been featured in Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, the Middle East Eye, The Wire as well as Iranian media outlets, among others.

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