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What is the future of bilateral ties between Afghanistan and Iran?

Iran has close linguistic and cultural ties to Afghanistan, particularly with Tajiks, Persian-speaking Afghans in Herat Province, and the Hazara, a Shiite minority residing in central and northern Afghanistan. Iranian influence in this region runs deep especially in the city of Herat. In this regard, Dr. Tahir Ashraf talks about the future of these two countries bilateral ties given the fact that Iran’s influence has not always been welcomed by some local Afghans.

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Who could have imagined that closer ties could be established between the Afghan Taliban and Iran, but the two sides not only established bilateral ties but also cooperated? Since the establishment of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 1996, the deterioration of relations between Afghanistan and Iran began to increase and was expected to do so as groups in both countries adhering to different sects of Islam (Sunni and Shia) and taking a hard line were central to the system of government.

Against this backdrop, in 1998 the situation between Afghanistan and Iran became so tense that the two neighbors escaped war. But later, Iran started supporting the Taliban against the United States, even though their ideology had not changed at that time. How did Iran’s attitude change? This is a question that can be discussed, as the answer to this can lead to speculation about the nature of future relations between Afghanistan and Iran.

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What happens when there’s a clash of interests?

International relations theories explain that relations between states are based solely on interests and are completely free from ethnic and religious considerations because states, like individuals, prefer only their interests. And ensure the attainment of these interests as much as possible. A fresh example is the recent tensions between France and the United States.

France and the United States are old allies and adherents of Western democratic values and traditions, but when trade and financial interests clash, a war of words has erupted between the two countries and bitterness has prevailed. France has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the United States while canceling celebrations of US-French diplomatic relations at its embassy in Washington.

The Taliban lost power in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and Iran cooperated with the United States at the time, probably because Iran expected the US to ease economic sanctions. The United States could not afford to reduce any political, diplomatic, or economic pressure on Iran because of the compulsions of their traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, when Iran’s expectations were not met and the United States refused to make any concessions, Iran also began establishing ties with the Afghan Taliban in 2005 to create obstacles for the United States in Afghanistan so that the US could bear the maximum cost. Similarly, in 2015, given the growing influence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Iran enhanced its ties with the Afghan Taliban because ISIS was a common threat to both.

Read more: How do Russia, Pakistan, China, Iran and India view the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan?

Iran developed connections with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, which borders Iran and assured them of its sympathy and support against a common enemy i.e. the United States. The main and short-term goal of this nexus was to drive the United States out of the region, which was finally achieved by the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on 15th August 2021.

Will there be a happy and lasting relationship in the future?

This is a complex question that will be answered in this column. How the Taliban treat minorities, especially the Shia Hazara community, will be important in determining the future relationship between the Taliban and Iran. Iran was unhappy with the Iranian-affiliated Taliban’s under-representation in the first cabinet formed by the Taliban and ignored the Hazara Shia community because the first 33-member cabinet announced by the Taliban was comprised of only Sunni but three were Pashtuns.

Therefore, Iran also had objections to the first Taliban cabinet. According to media reports, Mullah Ibrahim Sadr and Mullah Qayyum Zakir, the Iranian-backed Taliban leaders from Helmand, were angry at not being included in the cabinet and left Kabul for Helmand.

Another source of tension between Iran and the Taliban is the Panjshir war because Iran opposed the invasion of the Panjshir valley and was against the military solution. Iran showed its concerns by allowing anti-Taliban demonstrations in its country.

Read more: Iranian poll contains important messages for Biden and Raisi

However, the Taliban have made some changes in the cabinet to resolve their issues with Iran. On 20 September 2021, the Taliban commander Dawood Muzammil from Helmand has been appointed as the governor of Nangarhar, and Mullah Ibrahim Sadr has been appointed deputy defense minister, while one person from the Hazara group, who belongs to the Shiite sect, has also been included in the cabinet.

Iran has been skeptical about the Haqqani network, whereas members of the Haqqani network have been given key responsibilities in the interim cabinet. The future of the relationship between Iran and the Taliban will be determined by the Taliban’s military operation against the IS-K. More importantly, the supply of water to Iran from the Kamal Khan Dam in Afghanistan will also play a key role in establishing a stable and lasting relationship between the two countries.

 

Dr. Tahir Ashraf holds Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and teaches at the Department of International Relations, Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan. He can be contacted at tahirmian1@bzu.edu.pk. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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