Can Iran-Taliban ties survive in Afghanistan's unpredictable future?

Two Afghan refugee men wearing protective face masks sit in front of a religious flag at a hussainiyah while attending a religious ceremony to commemorate Ashura in Shahr-e-Rey neighbourhood in the south of Tehran. [Getty]
7 min read
07 September, 2021

Unexpectedly, Tehran has been getting along quite well with the Taliban ever since they seized power from the Ghani administration in Afghanistan.

The general perception had been that Iran did not support the Taliban or the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. This smooth re-adjustment in relations, therefore, has surprised many.

Since 2018, Tehran has been helping the Ghani government negotiate with the Taliban by hosting their delegations for bilateral talks, with the most recent top-level visit taking place on 7 July 2021.

Although Iran had seemed to be more on the side of the deposed president, it has also had close back channels with the Taliban for years.

"While Iran and the Taliban have a tense history, Tehran has incrementally sought to collaborate with the Taliban in the interest of advancing its influence in Afghanistan"

Having reset ties with the Taliban beforehand, Iran is now one of the few countries to keep its embassy in Kabul and consulate in Herat “fully open and operational”.

According to official instructions, Iranian media outlets have also started avoiding any harsh rhetoric or criticism against the Taliban.

Moreover, Iran has adopted a mild approach towards the insurgent group, saying that they are “part of today’s reality of Afghanistan” and “part of the future solution.”

In fact, when the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismael-Zahi, a top Sunni cleric from Zahedan, openly welcomed their “great victory” over the Ghani government.

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To add perspective, while the Taliban ruled once before in Afghanistan from the mid-1990s to 2001, their government was never accepted by Tehran. In fact, apart from Islamabad, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, no other country had recognised it.

During this time, Iran did not maintain ties with the Taliban due to their persecution of the Shia Afghan Hazara community. 

Then, in 1998, the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif was allegedly attacked by the Taliban, with eleven Iranian diplomats and a journalist killed. Thereafter, Tehran was thought to have discreetly lent support to US-led NATO efforts to topple the Taliban in 2001.

As a result, bilateral ties between Tehran and the Taliban were virtually non-existent. So how and when did both sides bridge the gap?

Taliban fighters stand guard along a road in Herat on 19 August 2021, amid the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. [Getty]
Taliban fighters in Herat on 19 August. [Getty]

“While Iran and the Taliban have a tense history, Tehran has incrementally sought to collaborate with the Taliban in the interest of advancing its influence in Afghanistan,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute in Washington D.C., told The New Arab.

“When ties with the US turned hostile in the early 2000s, Iran began to assist the Taliban in its campaign against Western intervention as early as 2007.”

Then, a new extremist group, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) emerged on the scene. Viewing the group as a security threat, Iran stepped up efforts to help the Taliban counter them.

Even the upper tier of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its commander, Ismail Qaani, developed connections with some Taliban factions. In July 2016, a statement by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that the group was “establishing new relations with Tehran.”

"Among Tehran's main goals will be to uphold high exports volume, limit the flow of refugees and drugs, protect the Shia community, and curtail the Islamic State Khorasan Province's activities"

“The emergence of ISIS-K in Herat, Nimruz, Farah and other areas along the Afghan-Iran border intensified Tehran’s cooperation with the Taliban,” according to Caroline Rose.  

“Iran sent shipments of small arms, explosives, RPGs, mortars, rockets, machine guns, and even provided training camps and advisory services to Taliban fighters inside of areas like south Khorasan.”

But since the Iran-Taliban connection is mainly focused on containing the ISKP, it may turn out to be a temporary alliance. Though both sides are edging closer, it is uncertain whether these ties can survive under pressure in the long term.

“The Taliban cannot be seen as an Iranian proxy, its allegiance does not lie with Tehran as it still behaves as an independent actor,” Rose adds.

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“In the next months, Iran is seeking to expand its influence not only among Taliban leaders, but other militia groups in Afghanistan that can be used as a counterweight to the Taliban, to maximize its influence in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.”

However, both sides do have some common interests.

Firstly, Tehran could upgrade its trade with Kabul as Iranian products are well received in markets there. In the past few years, Iran’s exports to Afghanistan have hovered around $4 billion while Afghan companies export goods worth around $40 to $50 million to Iran.

In fact, Kabul is one of Tehran’s top five trading partners right now and according to World Bank data more than 40% of Afghanistan’s oil comes across the Iranian border.

A Taliban flag is seen as Afghans continue to wait at Torkham border crossing to enter Pakistan on 24 August. [Getty]
A Taliban flag at the Torkham border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. [Getty]

Secondly, both Tehran and the Taliban can benefit from the Chinese factor if things can settle down. Earlier this year, Tehran finalised a 25-year strategic partnership agreement with Beijing, and it is also part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Both Iran and Afghanistan are part of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), with Tehran almost a member and Kabul having observer status.

Thirdly, Iran can maintain peace in its border regions if it has good relations with the Taliban. Having a 570-mile border with Afghanistan, this would allow Iran to control the refugee influx and monitor any terrorist elements.

Finally, Iran’s political system of governance is very similar to that of the Taliban and it is quite likely that they will adopt the Iranian model and gain from Tehran’s experience.

"Future relations with Afghanistan will be shaped by Iran's ability to pursue its interests and Kabul's capacity to govern and maintain stable security conditions"

Condemning attacks on Shia mosques and supporting Ashura processions in Muharram, the Taliban have also been more accommodating towards Iran. As a goodwill gesture, the Taliban appointed a Shia cleric from the Hazara community as a district governor in the northern region of Afghanistan last year.

“Future relations with Afghanistan will be shaped by Iran’s ability to pursue its interests and Kabul’s capacity to govern and maintain stable security conditions,” Przemysław Lesiński, an Afghanistan analyst at the Asia Research Center, War Studies University in Warsaw, told The New Arab, identifying some more of Tehran’s immediate interests.

“Among Tehran’s main goals will be to uphold high exports volume, limit the flow of refugees and drugs, protect the Shia community, curtail the ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) activities and secure rights to water flow from Afghanistan,” he added.

“Tehran has been preparing for the possible Taliban takeover of Kabul for quite some time, either by covertly supporting the insurgency or by maintaining contacts with the Taliban’s political office,” according to Lesiński.

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“So, comparing to the 90s, Iran is in a very good position to achieve friendly relations with the new Kabul government, and even the possible renewal of the JCPOA shouldn’t change Tehran’s position in this matter.”

However, if things don’t work out, Tehran may lose interest in nurturing the relationship any further.

“Currently, Iran is waiting for further developments in how the situation will unfold in Afghanistan before crafting its own policy,” Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told The New Arab.

“On the one hand, Tehran is interested in a stable Afghanistan that doesn’t back Tehran into making difficult strategic choices involving shifting some of its already-limited resources to the Afghan theatre. On the other hand, any dissolution of joint interests and communication could allow the Iran-backed Shiite Fatemiyoun division to play a bigger role in Afghanistan.”

"Tehran has been preparing for the possible Taliban takeover of Kabul for quite some time, either by covertly supporting the insurgency or by maintaining contacts with the Taliban’s political office"

Having spent two years working with the Polish Military Contingent in Afghanistan, Lesiński is of the same opinion, saying that, “Tehran could also retain some channels to pressure the Taliban, like former Jihadi commander Ismail Khan, who went into exile to Iran and has many followers, especially in western Afghanistan, or Hazara militias, which can also serve as resistance forces against the Taliban.”

Therefore, if instability persists in Afghanistan it could prove to be an unbearable strain for tenuous Iran-Taliban ties. Having had a controversial reputation in the past, a lot depends on how much the Taliban have evolved and whether they can gain the confidence of the Afghan masses.

Nevertheless, the Taliban are more diplomatic now. Having reassured all of their neighbours that Afghan soil would not be used by militants to carry out attacks on them, the Taliban 2.0 are out to win trust.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi