It could not have been a more striking picture: a Taliban delegation visiting Tehran in late January and being received by senior Iranian officials. They reportedly discussed “relations between both countries, the situation of the Afghan migrants in Iran, and the current political and security situation of Afghanistan and the region.”
The presence of a Taliban delegation in Iran was shocking to many. However, Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, stated that the Afghan government was notified in advance of the trip. Afghanistan’s foreign ministry confirmed that Tehran had in fact sought the Afghan government’s views in advance. The official Afghan statement went on to say, “Iran wants to make sure that a post-conflict Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for terrorist groups [but] will remain a center of regional and international cooperation.”
This was not the first time that Taliban leaders had visited Iran. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, director of the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran in November 2019. It was a trip aimed at “helping Afghan peace and security.”
According to Zarif, who met with the Taliban delegation on January 31, “political decisions cannot be made in a vacuum and an inclusive government must be formed in a participatory process and needs to consider all fundamental structures, institutions, and laws, such as the constitution.”
Inviting the Taliban to Tehran: A hard sell for Iranian leaders
Since 1996, when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Iranian hardliners have often been called “Iran’s Taliban.” In fact, during the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement, Iranian demonstrators chanted, “Down with the Taliban, in Kabul or Tehran.” Fast forward twelve years later and Iranian authorities had to justify the actual presence of the Taliban delegation in Tehran.
The trip did not sit well in Afghanistan either. The Afghan public does not react well to the perception that their country’s neighbors support the Taliban, which has been responsible for the deaths of countless journalists, students, and other civilians.
Now the Iranian government must sell the importance of Iran’s involvement in the Afghan peace process and create a more acceptable image of the Taliban in order to portray them as a serious negotiating partner.
Its attempts so far have not been very successful. On January 27, a tweet by Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, raised an eyebrow among Afghan officials. Shamkhani tweeted that: “In today’s meeting with the Taliban political delegation: I found the leaders of this group determined to fight the United States.” The Iranian Labor News Agency also quoted Shamkhani as saying: “Iran will not recognize any group aiming at coming to power through war, emphasizing the necessity of participation of all ethnicities in determining the fate of Afghanistan through an absolutely peaceful process.”
The damage was done, however. Iranian and Afghan social media users pointed out the Taliban’s previous statement [which contradicted Shamkhani’s] that the group is in “daily touch with the American military.” Meanwhile, Yasin Zia, Chief of the General Staff of the Afghanistan National Army, criticized Shamkhani on January 28, saying that “Unfortunately, your understanding of the ongoing war in Afghanistan is incorrect. The Taliban is not fighting the Americans but the Afghan people. We act decisively against any group of enemies of the Afghan people.”
Iran has also tried to offer its services as a potential middleman. On February 2, Special Representative of Iran’s foreign ministry, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, met with Afghan officials—including head of the High Council of National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah and Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar—in Kabul, in what appeared to be an attempt to mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Abdullah “praised” Iran’s position toward Afghanistan’s peace process and its role in “securing peace.”
Iran’s changing view of the Taliban
The Iranian government has not always been on cordial terms with the Taliban. In 1998, Iran almost went to war with Taliban-led Afghanistan, when the Taliban murdered nine Iranians—one journalist and eight diplomats—at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif. After the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Iran cooperated fully with the US and was highly active in the post-Taliban formation of the Afghan government. It mediated between Afghan warlords who seemed irreconcilable to each other and brought them to the reconstruction conference in Bonn. Iran, the country that for many years hosted various Afghan warlords, expelled Gulbuddin Hekmatyar due to his hostility toward the US.
In January 2002, things changed, however. President George W. Bush branded Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address. That may have been the genesis of Iran’s contact with the Taliban. Fearing a possible attack from the US via Afghanistan, Iran provided the Taliban with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to assist its insurgent campaign against the US occupation. Iran came to view the Taliban as a way to weaken the Americans but did not support the group at the expense of Afghan stability.
Then came the emergence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) in 2015, a group many times more brutal and violent than the Taliban. As Iran lost confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to defeat IS-K, it turned to the Taliban. High-level contacts between Iran and the Taliban ensued. For example, former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed on May 21, 2016, by a US drone attack while Mansour was returning to Pakistan after a long stay in Iran. Later, these contacts became public, with Tehran stating that the Afghan government was always notified of meetings between Taliban and Iranian officials. Interestingly, on December 26, 2018, Shamkhani justified the meetings by describing the threat of the IS-K presence in Afghanistan as “serious.”
Current Taliban-Iran ties
At this point, neither the US nor the government of Afghanistan can deal with the Taliban alone, as neither has enough leverage. At the same time, it is in the interest of the entire region that Afghanistan did not become a haven for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. A regional solution may be a lasting one that prevents Afghanistan from descending into chaos. Iran would be an essential player in such a project and it would be a political and security win for Tehran if it successfully mediates between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, it is imperative that the Afghan government remain actively involved and does not feel excluded from Iranian efforts.
The truth is that the Afghan government, despite all its shortcomings, has been elected by the Afghan people. It has made achievements in areas such as women’s rights and the rights of minorities that should not be sacrificed, and that, as Abdullah promised, “should be reflected in the peace process.”
Meanwhile, if the Taliban truly desires to be part of the Afghan governing structure, it must be willing to accept that times have changed since they came to power in 1996. Taliban leaders need to understand that to govern Afghanistan they need to win the Afghan people’s hearts and minds and understand that violent tactics will only increase their unpopularity.
The Taliban have frequently denied responsibility for the increase of violent attacks in Afghanistan over the past several months. However, the Afghan public does not believe their denials. The Taliban is not a unified group with centralized leadership. There are several different factions within the organization, perhaps with varying understandings of power-sharing. There may be spoilers, both within the Taliban and foreign insurgents—such as IS-K—who oppose the peace talks. The Taliban, as a negotiating partner, needs to create visible and verifiable distance from these spoilers.
As the Afghanistan Study Group’s February report stated, “Iran does not want to see the return of a Taliban regime in Kabul.” Iran cannot possibly expect to turn the Taliban into its proxy in the case that Afghanistan descends into civil war and there is a genuine ideological rift between Iran and the Taliban. Moreover, it is in Tehran’s interest to have a stable Afghanistan as a neighbor.
Regional cooperation might be the only solution to reach a lasting peace for Afghanistan and, in that regard, Iran may be able to help.
Fatemeh Aman is a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. She has written on Iranian, Afghan, and broader Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. The article was originally published at Atlantic Council and has been reposted with the author’s permission.