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To Engage or Not to Engage? Iran and the “New” Taliban

Given the fundamental ideological differences between the ruling political system of Iran, based on Twelver Shi’ism, and the Taliban, based on Deobandi Sunni ideology, one would expect the two groups to be viciously opposed. Instead, strangely, low-level cooperation is growing between the two sides. This growing cooperation has led many around the world to wonder if Iran’s policy and approach toward Afghanistan has really changed from the group’s last iteration during the 1990s.

Understanding Iran’s relationship with the Taliban requires a degree of awareness about the history between the two. During the first period of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, Iran, along with India and a few other states, lent their support to the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Taliban’s massacre of Afghan Shiites, notoriously including the country’s Hazara ethnic minority, was a major factor in the dispute between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban. The dispute with the Taliban escalated to the point where Iran considered launching a major invasion of Afghanistan after the killing of 11 of its diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif by the Taliban in 1998.

The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in Iran’s policies towards the Taliban. In the aftermath of the attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran supported Washington’s move to form an interim government in Kabul. However, Iran, which had hoped to gain goodwill with the United States for its actions, was shocked and angered after President George W. Bush indicated in his 2002 State of the Union address that he viewed it, alongside Iraq and North Korea, as a member of the world’s “axis of evil.” Iran retaliated against Washington by intensifying its support of anti-U.S. forces in the region, including the Taliban.

Iran’s relationship with the Taliban has become more prominent in the past few years. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is famous for his sharp criticism of different foreign states and organizations, has been conspicuously quiet about the Taliban and its takeover of Afghanistan. The conservative Kayhan newspaper in Tehran, which reflects the opinions of the Iranian hardliners, has lauded the Taliban as an “authentic” anti-American movement in Afghanistan. At the same time, a number of officials in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made reference to the “Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban’s preferred designation, to refer to the new government in Kabul.

Old Foes, New Friends

Iran’s role in defeating the first government of the Taliban in Afghanistan by cooperating with the United States and anti-Taliban Afghan forces is quite clear. At the time, Tehran viewed the rise of an extremist Sunni government in Afghanistan as a serious threat to its national security. However, two other issues, raised after the 2001 invasion, led Tehran to reconsider its hostile position towards the Taliban: the presence of American forces in Afghanistan, and the ever-growing influence of ISIS in the country.

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a number of Taliban commanders and fighters who were unable to reach Pakistan fled instead to Iran, and Iran refused to hand them over to Afghanistan’s new government. Indeed, based on Afghan sources, Tehran later provided training camps for the Taliban fighters. On several occasions, Afghan military officials in the west of the country displayed Iranian-made weapons in front of cameras, all of which had been taken from the Taliban or discovered before reaching them.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published secret U.S. military documents about the war, indicating that Iran had sheltered and trained Taliban insurgents to “fight coalition forces in Afghanistan.” Iran denied this accusation and condemned the evidence as fraudulent or misleading. It was only in May 2015, when Tehran reported that a delegation from the Taliban’s political bureau in Qatar would arrive in Tehran to discuss how the group could prevent ISIS influence in Afghanistan, that the links between the two sides became public.

Since then, Tehran amplified its cooperation with the Taliban to protect its borders against ISIS. Even during its insurgency, the Taliban patrolled parts of the border areas between the two countries. This clandestine cooperation also led to the expansion of diplomatic relations. Even as Iran officially denied its cooperation with the group, the killing of Taliban emir Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. drone strike as he was returning to Pakistan from Iran in May 2016 revealed the close relationships between the two parties.

With the rise of the Taliban in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, in late January 2021, a group of Taliban political representatives traveled to Tehran. As a product of this meeting, both Tehran and the Taliban emphasized their common approach to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Both parties once again repeated that all foreign forces would have to leave Afghan soil, including both U.S. troops and ISIS. Prior to the withdrawal of the US troops, Iran had considered America’s military presence in Afghanistan as a vital threat.

Next Steps

Following the inauguration of hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, anti-Americanism is expected to rise in Iran’s foreign policy approach. This, in turn, will bring Iran closer to the Taliban. It is expected that by emphasizing that it views the Taliban’s current iteration as an altogether different group than its 1990s predecessor, Iran will try to introduce the Taliban as a new member of the so-called “axis of resistance” against the Western powers and their allies in the region.

One area of potential early cooperation is in captured military equipment. The U.S. military abandoned tens of millions of dollars worth of aircraft, armored vehicles, and sophisticated defensive systems to the Taliban in the rush to leave Afghanistan by President Biden’s August 31 withdrawal date.  While the United States made an effort to destroy as much of this equipment as possible, they were not successful in destroying all of it, and some of it fell into the Taliban’s hands. However, given the difficulty of using complex weapons systems and the Taliban’s lack of expertise, the new government in Kabul may transfer some of this equipment to Iran for reverse engineering, in return for Iran assisting the Taliban in properly utilizing the weapons.

The stability of Afghanistan in the absence of foreign forces is important for the national security of Iran. Both the Taliban and Tehran consider ISIS as a major common enemy. Therefore, it is likely that both will cooperate more to confront the group’s Afghanistan branch. The influx of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers into eastern Iran is another problem that Tehran can tackle by advancing its relations with the Taliban.

A Marriage of Inconvenience

However, the future relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocratic Shi’a state, and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a militant Sunni state, will not be challenge-free. The Taliban’s history of advancing their ideology at the expense of Afghanistan’s diverse religious traditions – including the predominantly-Shi’a Hazaras, who comprise roughly 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population – will continue to imperil prospective ties between Kabul and Tehran. As the main supporter of Shiite populations around the world, Iran will have difficulty ignoring the brutal treatment of the Hazaras by the Taliban, and any Taliban atrocities against the Hazaras could trigger a major conflict between Iran and the Taliban, as it nearly did in 1998.

At the same time, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will have an impact on the close ties enjoyed between Iran and India. India has heavily invested in the Chabahar Project in southeastern Iran, the primary objective of which was to promote India-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral connectivity. As the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, India’s influence in the country has already diminished in favor of Pakistan, India’s main opponent. Closer cooperation between Iran and the Taliban can further deteriorate Tehran-New Delhi relations.

However, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan fits into Tehran’s overarching foreign policy goals. Tehran, enraged by the U.S. violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, is ready to do almost anything to further advance an anti-American foreign policy in the region and to protect its prestige by weakening the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Despite its misgivings about the Taliban, establishing close ties with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan fits well into this broader strategy.

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

Dr. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Üsküdar University. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the National University of Singapore (NUS). His main fields of interest include gender, media, forced migration, political violence, international security, terrorism, and sustainable development with special focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. He is author of the book The Strategic Logic of Women in Jihadi Organizations: From Operation to State Building (Springer, 2021). Dr. Khelghat-Doost is also a Next Generation Leader on Gender, Peace, and Security (GPS) at Women In International Security (WIIS), Washington D.C., United States as well as a member of the Board of Academia at the Academy of Security, Intelligence and Risk Studies in Singapore. He has the experience of conducting field research in several countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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