In the wake of the Taliban leader’s death, we’re only now coming to understand just how ties between Tehran and the Taliban are evolving.
- By Michael KugelmanMichael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at firstname.lastname@example.org
On May 21, after a drone strike obliterated a car and its two occupants in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, local officials discovered a Pakistani passport, miraculously intact, amid the smoldering wreckage and two bodies charred beyond recognition. The passport belonged to a man identified as Wali Muhammad. Its photo bore an uncanny resemblance to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban targeted by the drone strike, who lay dead close by. According to reports in the Pakistani press, the passport indicated that its owner, presumably Mullah Mansour, had been returning from Iran, where he had been since April 26. He had also traveled there for several weeks in February and March.
Mullah Mansour’s decision to visit Iran and leave his sanctuary in Balochistan — where the Afghan Taliban’s top leadership had long been safely ensconced — is odd. After all, Tehran is no friend of the Taliban; on the contrary, it has formally aligned itself with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban actors. It played an instrumental role at the 2001 Bonn Conference that established a post-Taliban government. In the early years of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran gave Washington maps showing Taliban positions, and its military offered to train 20,000 Afghan troops.
Iran also has good reason to distance itself from the Taliban. Simple sectarian considerations — Iran is Shiite, the Taliban is Sunni — offer one explanation. But the divergences run deeper: The Taliban harbors links to Jundallah, an anti-state Sunni terror group in Iran. It oversees a flourishing narcotics trade that feeds Iran’s crippling heroin epidemic, and it has been blamed for the killings of nearly a dozen Iranian diplomats at their consulate in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, which brought Iran and Taliban-run Afghanistan to the brink of war (according to some accounts, the Pakistani anti-Shiite militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba was behind that attack).
Western authorities have a simple explanation for Mullah Mansour’s presence in Iran: He was there to receive medical treatment, according to a European official quoted in the New York Times, in order to avoid Pakistani hospitals and the watchful eye of his patron, Pakistan’s intelligence agency. No specifics were given as to what he was being treated for. The Wall Street Journal, curiously, has reported that Mullah Mansour was actually in Iran to visit family. In any case, U.S. officials knew of his whereabouts and, aided by communications intercepts, were able to track him there. According to a tweet by NPR correspondent Tom Bowman, Washington even had his SIM card number.
Mullah Mansour’s trip to Iran may well have been a simple trip to the doctor. But the trip may have had more nefarious purposes, too. Despite the differences between Tehran and the Taliban, they share some key interests and have often cooperated operationally. Indeed, Tehran and the Taliban have a more symbiotic relationship than meets the eye. In particular, they are both wary of the West and particularly the United States. And each seeks to undercut Washington’s influence.
Thomas Joscelyn, an international security analyst and senior editor with the Long War Journal, has presented a compelling case of long-standing links between Iran and the Taliban. These links date back to 2000, when, according to unclassified U.S. government memos, Mullah Mohammed Omar tasked Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, the Taliban governor of Herat province, with improving relations between the organization and Tehran. As a result of this outreach, Iran agreed to supply the Taliban with mines and small arms. (On two separate occasions in 2007 and 2011, international forces in Afghanistan intercepted arms shipments from Iran destined for the Taliban.) The two sides also inked an open border agreement that enabled the Taliban to smuggle money, goods, and fighters into Iran. Khairkhwa’s outreach laid the groundwork for a later, major triumph of Iran-Taliban cooperation: the 2012 opening of a Taliban office in the Iranian city of Zahedan, home to many of the several million Afghans residing in Iran.
Historically, a key factor driving Iran’s cooperation with the Taliban has been mutual concern about the U.S. military presence, and broader American influence, in Afghanistan. Tehran, for example, has that U.S. forces could launch attacks on its nuclear facilities from Afghanistan.
Today, circumstances have changed. U.S. combat forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, and Iran and the United States have concluded a landmark nuclear agreement. One might assume these developments would ease some of Iran’s anxieties about America’s designs and suggest fewer incentives for Tehran to cooperate with the Taliban — think again.
News reports over the last year suggest increased levels of Iranian cash and arms transfers to the Taliban. But why? One reason, which may also help explain Moscow’s recent outreach to the Taliban, is the shared unease about the rising influence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, where several thousand former Taliban fighters, most of them in the eastern province of Nangarhar, have declared their allegiance to the group. Some of Mullah Mansour’s supporters, demoralized by their leader’s sudden death, could join these Islamic State-aligned fighters.
Another factor that may help explain Iran-Taliban comity is the Taliban’s desire to wean itself off Pakistani sanctuaries and other largesse. As I’ve written previously, NATO interviews with Taliban detainees reveal that many of the group’s leaders and fighters chafe at their reliance on Islamabad, a patron many Taliban members do not trust because of the tight control it likes to exert over them as well as its willingness to arrest those Taliban personnel deemed uncooperative. With the Taliban reeling from the death of Mullah Mansour in Balochistan — a sanctuary where the group had never felt vulnerable before — it may have an even stronger incentive to secure alternative arrangements that do not involve Pakistan. For the Taliban, this could amplify the utility of retaining, if not intensifying, its ties to Tehran — and particularly, as some observers have suggested, by using areas it controls in Afghanistan to work out arrangements with Iran to receive covert financial support.
For Iran, a strong incentive for continuing cooperation with the Taliban is the need for a hedging strategy: Amid all the uncertainty and volatility in Afghanistan, where the insurgency continues to make inroads and a weak national unity government faces an uncertain future, it pays for Iran to keep its options open with the Taliban, arguably Afghanistan’s most consequential non-state actor.
This isn’t to say that the Taliban have no reason to cooperate with Kabul. On the contrary, Iran would be much better served by scaling back measures — from arms shipments and money transfers to the provision of the Taliban office in Zahedan — that strengthen the Taliban. A stronger Taliban means more instability in Afghanistan, which in turn portends a more robust narcotics trade and higher refugee outflows. Both have direct and deleterious consequences for Iran.
Additionally, a more destabilized Afghanistan imperils promising development projects critical to Iran as it struggles to recover from years of sanctions. This week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tehran to conclude a series of accords with Iran and Afghanistan linked to the development of Iran’s Chabahar port, an initiative meant to facilitate trade and transport among gas-rich Central Asia, Afghanistan, and India. In effect, Iran could serve as a gateway to much-coveted markets and a lynchpin of a major effort to scale up regional connectivity. Yet if Iran keeps showering the Taliban with money and arms, thereby contributing to Afghanistan’s destabilization, Chabahar may be a port to nowhere.
In reality, Tehran is likely to play a double game: It will continue to work with Kabul while providing covert support to the Taliban. The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal may have eased some of the tensions in U.S.-Iran relations, but the two nations have not magically become friends. Meanwhile, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which may not be drawn down as quickly as President Barack Obama had wished, will continue to trouble Iran, even if it is secretly reassured that U.S. forces could help bring a modicum of stability to Afghanistan. Furthermore, Iran is unlikely to simply wash its hands of an organization that controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since 2001.
Ultimately, the complex ties between Tehran and the Taliban exemplify a slight variation of a well-known diplomatic dictum: The enemy of my enemy is my frenemy.
Photo credit: JAVED TANVEER / Stringer