Dispatch

Why Iran Will Welcome the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

Tehran’s Shiite regime has strategic, economic, ideological, and ecological reasons for backing Sunni extremists.

By , a journalist focusing on the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Iran's then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C) of the Taliban in Tehran on Jan. 31.
Iran's then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C) of the Taliban in Tehran on Jan. 31. TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan—“He travels with Iranian bodyguards,” a tribal elder and local police chief alleged about a Taliban commander from his home district of Shah Wali Kot.

“He has traveled back and forth from Iran for decades. He was previously a commander near Herat” during the Taliban rule over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, the police chief—who requested anonymity for security purposes—told me in an Aug. 2 interview held in a secluded location for on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar.

After the former Taliban capital fell once again to the Taliban on Aug. 12, the man I interviewed was reportedly hanged.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan—“He travels with Iranian bodyguards,” a tribal elder and local police chief alleged about a Taliban commander from his home district of Shah Wali Kot.

“He has traveled back and forth from Iran for decades. He was previously a commander near Herat” during the Taliban rule over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, the police chief—who requested anonymity for security purposes—told me in an Aug. 2 interview held in a secluded location for on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar.

After the former Taliban capital fell once again to the Taliban on Aug. 12, the man I interviewed was reportedly hanged.

When the Taliban took Afghanistan’s key Islam Qala border crossing with Iran on July 9, locals reported that Iranian officials on the other side welcomed them. When on Aug. 6 it seemed the capital of Nimroz province in western Afghanistan was about to fall and many of those afraid of the Taliban rushed toward the border to escape, Iranian officials instead reportedly refused entry to most of those fleeing.

A major reason for Iranian support for the Taliban is Iran’s need for the water that flows into the country from across the border.

Iran has a long history of hosting both key al Qaeda members as well as Taliban leaders. As Foreign Policy reported in May 2016, “Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in Pakistan by an American drone last weekend after leaving Iran, where his family lives. U.S. officials say that Mullah Mansour regularly and freely traveled into and out of Iran.”

Several sources I spoke to on the ground across the country during a monthlong reporting trip between July and August this year said that Iran has played a major role in the conflict.

While I was reporting from Kandahar, multiple security officials told me that Iranian weapons had been found in the hands of killed Taliban fighters in the area.

They added that they had received information on Iranian fighters operating in Nimroz, Herat, and Helmand provinces in western and southwestern Afghanistan near the border with Iran.

Multiple reports in recent years have accused Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of providing weaponry and training for the Taliban. In February 2017, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress that Iran was supporting the Taliban to undermine the U.S. mission in the country, noting that “Russia, Iran, and al Qaeda are playing significant roles in Afghanistan.”

The governor of the western Afghan province of Farah alleged the same year that training centers had been established inside Iran for the purpose of training would-be Taliban, and Iranian support was blamed for an uptick in violence that year.

In 2016, Foreign Policy published a report quoting two unnamed Western officials as saying that Tehran was “providing Taliban forces along its border with money and small amounts of relatively low-grade weaponry like machine guns, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades.”

A major reason for Iranian support for the Taliban is Iran’s need for the water that flows into the country from across the border.

Mike Martin, a former British Army officer fluent in Pashto who has worked extensively in Helmand and written a book on the area titled An Intimate War, told Foreign Policy: “Iran has developed links over many years to multiple militant groups inside Helmand Province, with its allegiance changing depending on who has the upper hand in the province.”

There are compelling economic and strategic reasons for these links. Martin said that “control of Helmand, and particularly upper Helmand, where the Alizai, Noorzai and Ishaqzai tribes reside, means control of a series of dam canals—in fact built by [the U.S. Agency for International Development] in the 1950s-70s—that allow control of the output of the Helmand river, which empties into Iran’s Sistan region where it waters around a million people.”

The support Iran has provided to armed groups inside Afghanistan, Martin said, has “ranged from money to weapons to routes for exfiltrating drugs, and has gone on for at least the last decade, if not twice that—the water from the river Helmand is a vital national interest for the Iranian government.”


Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives have long transited through Iran and operated from its territory.

When reporting from Afghanistan’s Maydan Wardak province in 2012, I photographed a billboard in Pashto offering a $10 million reward for Yasin al-Suri, a native of northeastern Syria who has long used Iran as a base but is known to have traveled extensively in Afghanistan and acted as al Qaeda recruiter.

This January, the U.S. State Department said Suri is still in Iran, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal: “The State Department also revealed that Yasin al-Suri, one of al Qaeda’s top facilitators, and Saif al Adel, one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s deputy emirs, are also still located inside Iran.”

A recent United Nations report said the Taliban remain “closely aligned” with al Qaeda and that the latter group continues to operate in several provinces of the country.

Meanwhile, earlier this year in the same province where I’d photographed the billboard nine years ago—Maydan Wardak—fighters answering to the Shiite Hazara militia commander Alipoor shot down a government helicopter, killing nine security personnel, including two pilots and four special forces members. Afghan security forces say Alipoor is supported by Iran.

Though some find it odd that Shiite Afghans would be supporting the Taliban—given the targeting of minority Shiites when the Taliban were previously in power—there are multiple signs that some have grown closer to the group over the years as a result of Iranian influence.

The former vice president and Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq has, for example, been accused of “lobbying for Iranian interests” and has long been seen as possibly working for closer relations with the Taliban. He took part in talks with the Taliban at a Moscow conference opposed by the Afghan government in 2019.

Before that, in November 2017, he gave a speech at a conference in Tehran in which he praised Iran’s role in Afghanistan and Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in January 2020.

Iran does not have ideological qualms about supporting violent Sunni extremist groups when that role serves Tehran’s purposes.

Iran does not have ideological qualms about supporting violent Sunni extremist groups as well as other ostensibly nonreligious ones, despite often being seen as the “protector of Shiites” around the world—when that role serves Tehran’s purposes.

Iran has long supported the Sunni organization Hamas in the Gaza Strip, for example, both financially and with weapons.

In Iraq, Iran supports armed groups working closely with the avowedly secular, U.S.-designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Sinjar mountains. The PKK and its local allies have at times also worked closely with the Syrian government, long a strong ally of Iran.


Shortly before the Taliban took over the Islam Qala border crossing—which had in recent years brought in a significant amount of customs revenue for a government largely reliant on these very revenues alongside international aid for its functioning—in early July, a meeting was held in Tehran between Taliban representatives and the Iranian government.

In a July 31 question-and-answer session with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid hosted by an Iranian journalist, Mujahid said: “We always wanted to establish relations with Iran, because Iran has an Islamic system, and we want an Islamic system.”

That system is unlikely to offer much solace to regular Afghans. Only one of the dozens of Afghans I spoke to on the ground in several provinces during a month in the country believed that the Taliban would behave any differently in any significant manner from how they behaved during their previous rule, between 1996 and 2001.

Iran seems to believe it will benefit from the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan.

Some said they believed the Taliban would be even more brutal.

Several journalists have been killed by the Taliban in recent years. The award-winning Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was reportedly killed by the group in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province on July 16. His body was then severely mutilated.

On Aug. 6, the head of the government media and information center, Dawa Khan Menapal, was assassinated in Kabul. He had previously worked for years as a journalist and had often helped both Afghan and international journalists with contacts and information. I had met with him two weeks before in his Kabul office to learn information on Kandahar, where part of his family is from. He, too, told me that it was clear that Iran was supporting the Taliban.

Whether this backing is intended to ensure much-needed cross-border water supply, for religious reasons, or simply as a way to get a government seen as a U.S. ally out of the way, Iran seems to believe it will benefit from the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan.

Shelly Kittleson is a journalist focusing on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Her work has been published in numerous U.S., Italian, and international media outlets.

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