Iran’s policy towards the Taliban in the last few years demonstrates pragmatism based on the evolving threat perception in Afghanistan. The year 1979 fundamentally changed the governance structure and outlook of both neighbors; Iran witnessed Islamic Revolution, while Afghanistan was invaded and then embroiled in a decade-long conflict followed by civil war. In the last 20 years, Iran has openly embraced rivalry with the USA and Israel along with a sectarian conflict with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Even with a geopolitical situation so challenging, Iran never could detangle itself from any of the conflicts in Afghanistan. Though Iran maintained stable bilateral relations with US-sponsored governments in Afghanistan, the United States military presence and the rise of the Islamic State(IS) forced Iran to develop an open mind about the Taliban.
Iran’s involvement in the country began with its support of the Tajik fractions of the Mujahedeen during the Afghan Civil War. The emergence of the Taliban in 1994 became a strategic threat to Iran, as the Taliban related closely with Deobandi and Wahabi brands of Islam and implemented repressive practices against Afghanistan’s ethnic and sectarian minorities. Iran’s support of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban’s repressive policies towards the Hazaras and Tajiks further aggravated the situation. Taliban’s attack on Iran’s consulate in 1998 and execution of nine Iranian citizens, including eight diplomats, brought the two countries on the verge of war.
The war did not start, but the event marked the Taliban as an eternal foe of Iran
Tehran’s opportunity for revenge came in the form of intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11. Iran’s military provided intelligence and logistic assistance to the initial US operations against the Taliban; however, the bohemia was short-lived and fell apart soon. US presence in Afghanistan though initially welcomed as it removed the Taliban from power, became a thorn for Iran in light of escalating tensions between the two countries. Signed in 2005 between the US and Afghanistan, the “Joint Declaration of United States –Afghanistan Strategic Partnership” stated that the US could utilize its basis in Afghanistan to“..conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations…”.
The declaration rang alarm bells in Tehran; the authorities were convinced that the US could use Afghanistan against Iran. All the while, US leadership continued to aggravate their Iranian counterparts with explosive rhetoric. Tehran became extremely alert to the USA’s presence in Afghanistan within the broader regional context of its involvement in Iraq. These strategic concerns and an analysis of the ground realities forced Iran to reevaluate its policy towards the Taliban. Media accounts suggest that it was 2005 when Iran began a backdoor communication with the Taliban leadership. The authorities in Iran were quite quick to realize that the Taliban insurgency is likely to overlap the United States’ will to fight in Afghanistan.
As a result, Iran developed relationships with key Taliban figures, including the deceased MullahAkhter Mansour. US authorities even alleged that Taliban leaders received aid from Iran, an accusation Iran vehemently denies. Taliban and Tehran had come to an understanding, particularly in light of the Islamic State’s footprint in the country and a common foe in the form of the USA. The warming relationship between Iran and the Taliban was officially confirmed in January 2019, when Taliban leaders met with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister. After this meeting, the Iranian Foreign Ministry continued to host Taliban leadership in Tehran.
After the fall of Kabul, the Iranian Embassy in Kabul and its consulate in Herat remained open
The official response came from Iranian President Raisi, which focused entirely on US illegitimate presence and then defeat in the country, rather than any acknowledgment or mention of the events of August 15th. Here it is critical to mention that while the Iranian establishment realizes the necessity of relations with the Taliban, the Iranian public holds extremely negative views of the Taliban. The new government of President Raisi is confronted with domestic opposition to even engaging with the Taliban, let alone diplomatic recognition. According to media reports, Iranian authorities are trying to manage the hostile public attitudes towards the Taliban.
For instance, the Iranian media was instructed to avoid relating certain terminologies with the Taliban. It is also observed that Iran’s state media subtly indicates to its audience that the Taliban have changed their tone in comparison to the nineties regime. One of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s advisors in an interview even stated that “Afghanistan is a part of the axis of resistance”. However, on September 6th, Iran surprised the Taliban as well as Pakistan when the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson condemned the Taliban’s military offensive in Panjshir Valley and alluded to Pakistan’s interference in the country.
Interestingly, since this incident, Pakistan’s envoy in Afghanistan met with his Iranian counterpart in Kabul, Iran, and Pakistan’s foreign minister had a one on one meeting in Dushanbe, while Pakistan’sPrime Minister also met Iran’s President on the sidelines of the SCO Summit. The issue of Pakistan alleged interference or Taliban’smilitary offensive in Panjshir was not raised in either of these meetings. Since the initial reaction, Iran’s foreign ministry has not offered any more criticism of the Taliban on Panjshir. Iranian officials have repeatedly called on the Taliban to form an “inclusive government” in Afghanistan.
Furthermore anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan protestors outside the Pakistani embassy in Tehran were arrested by Iranian police on September 8th, 2021. It seems that the criticism offered by the foreign ministry in response to the Panjshir offensive was merely for public consumption. The reformist actors in the Iranian political system abhor the Taliban and fear another genocide of Tajiks and Shia Hazaras. Meanwhile, the hardliners and ultra-conservatives acknowledge that there is no alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Though Iran developed an understanding with the Taliban during the US presence in Afghanistan, diplomatic relations and recognition are entirely different things. After the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan, the presence and sustainment of transnational Jihadi organizations, including the Islamic State is the biggest fear of Tehran. Iran-Taliban relations are entirely dependent on the Taliban’s adherence to the promise that it will not allow terrorists to operate from its soil.
The second most crucial factor is the treatment of Tajiks and Hazaras in Afghanistan
Taliban were notorious for their mistreatment of ethnic and sectarian minorities during the nineties. An already wary Iranianpublic would be up in arms if the Taliban repeated the policies of the nineties. This sort of development would be a nightmare scenario for the Iranian government as passivity in such a situation would be political suicide. The security apparatus in Iran desires a stable Afghanistan. Iran is currently embroiled in many conflicts with various regional and global powers. Iran successfully maintained an upper hand in the proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, outmaneuvering regional rival Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks there has been an escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.
Israel went a step ahead and threatened an attack on Iranian nuclear installations to prevent Iran’s nuclear aspirations. In such a scenario, Iran cannot afford a conflict with its neighbor. As displayed by the highest echelons of power in Iran, the country is in no hurry to sabotage relations with the Taliban. If the Taliban allow Islamic State and Al Qaeda space against Iran or engage in mistreatments of its minorities, Iran could find itself in a tight corner and up against the Taliban. Till now, in light of greater strategic interests, Iran has sustained the public opposition against the Taliban and adopted a more neutral, almost appeasing stance.
Though if the Taliban fail to control cross-border terrorist activity against Iran, the government, despite its wishes, will be forced to reevaluate its relations with Afghanistan. For now, it seems that Iran is hoping that the Taliban adhere to their promises, which will allow the Iranians to focus on the Middle East, the nuclear deal with the USA and the biggest perceived threat to Iran’s national interests, Israel.
The write is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy