Analysis

Afghanistan Is a Bigger Headache for Tehran Than It Is Letting On

Iran cheered the U.S. withdrawal but is nervously hedging its bets with the Taliban.

By , a senior risk advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit.
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban in Tehran on Jan. 26. TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

On the day the Taliban captured Kabul, newly inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi cheered the United States’ “military defeat and withdrawal.” But although Iran may be happy to have U.S. troops gone from its northeastern border, the reconstituted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan poses another set of challenges Tehran’s decision-makers have been reluctant to openly debate. As much as Iran has supported the Taliban in recent years, worrisome scenarios for Tehran include the Taliban turning against Iran or Afghanistan’s Shiite minority as well as the specter of Sunni jihadism metastasizing westward.

Iran and the Taliban were sworn enemies in the late 1990s. When the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power during the final phase of the Afghan civil war, which was an ethnic conflict just as much as a religious one, they not only crushed dissent but also minorities, such as the Shiite Hazara. Iran joined the United States, Russia, and India in backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

In 1998, Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan nearly went to war after the killing of several Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council voted for war, only to be overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. When the United States invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001, Iran tacitly cooperated and supplied the U.S. military with battlefield intelligence. Tehran also helped secure the necessary support to midwife an internationally recognized post-Taliban government in Kabul.

On the day the Taliban captured Kabul, newly inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi cheered the United States’ “military defeat and withdrawal.” But although Iran may be happy to have U.S. troops gone from its northeastern border, the reconstituted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan poses another set of challenges Tehran’s decision-makers have been reluctant to openly debate. As much as Iran has supported the Taliban in recent years, worrisome scenarios for Tehran include the Taliban turning against Iran or Afghanistan’s Shiite minority as well as the specter of Sunni jihadism metastasizing westward.

Iran and the Taliban were sworn enemies in the late 1990s. When the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power during the final phase of the Afghan civil war, which was an ethnic conflict just as much as a religious one, they not only crushed dissent but also minorities, such as the Shiite Hazara. Iran joined the United States, Russia, and India in backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

In 1998, Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan nearly went to war after the killing of several Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council voted for war, only to be overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. When the United States invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001, Iran tacitly cooperated and supplied the U.S. military with battlefield intelligence. Tehran also helped secure the necessary support to midwife an internationally recognized post-Taliban government in Kabul.

Iran warmed up to the Taliban over the years, particularly with the rise of the Islamic State and its Afghan affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan, in 2014 and 2015. Iran began backing, bankrolling, training, and arming the Taliban against Islamic State-Khorasan as well as U.S. and Afghan government forces. Although the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan are both Sunni jihadist militias, they diverge in political objectives and theology, making them fierce rivals. Islamic State-Khorasan also benefited from the defection of disgruntled Taliban fighters—and may do so again.

The Taliban reportedly maintained offices in Iran, including in Zahedan and Mashhad—and some of them apparently purchased homes in Iran as well. That prompted then-Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in 2020 to deny the existence of a Taliban council in Mashhad, by analogy to Taliban leadership councils in the Pakistani cities of Quetta, Peshawar, and Miranshah. In 2016, a U.S. drone strike killed the Taliban’s then-Supreme Leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour as he was returning to Pakistan from Iran.

Tehran prefers a central government strong enough to rein in jihadists but weak enough to be politically pliable and not pose a military threat.

Seeking to influence Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal, Tehran hosted a delegation of Taliban representatives from the group’s temporary political office in Doha led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is now Afghanistan’s acting first vice premier. Iran was also the location of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Iranian leadership appears to have identified a pragmatic faction likely linked to the Taliban’s political wing. Even if religious ideologies do not align, Iran offers Afghanistan’s new rulers a model for the transition from a ragtag revolutionary—or more appropriately, reactionary—movement to enduring state structures.

Yet, in recent months, the Taliban have elicited contradictory views from Iran’s establishment elite. A prominent member of the Iranian parliament, Ahmad Naderi, praised the Taliban for supposedly abandoning Wahhabism and that ideology’s primary propagator, Saudi Arabia. Iranian media outlets affiliated with the hard-line leadership or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as Kayhan and Javan, ran similar editorials praising the Taliban’s putative transformation.

Others remain very critical of the Taliban. Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, a senior Shiite cleric, cautioned against “trusting a militia with a record of malice and murder.” Reversing its initial endorsement, Kayhan (whose editor in chief is a close affiliate of Khamenei) warned that the Taliban sought absolute power and violent suppression of Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed the Taliban sought control over Greater Khorasan, the historical region encompassing parts of today’s Afghanistan and Central Asia as well as northeastern Iran.

In the lead-up to the fall of Kabul, Tehran’s official messaging also veered between warning and reassurance. On July 8, the Taliban took control of Islam Qala border crossing, which connects Iran with Herat, a heavily Persian-influenced city in western Afghanistan. Days later, at Dogharun on the Iranian side, Iranian Army chief Abdolrahim Mousavi showed up to reassure Iranians—and perhaps warn the Taliban—that the border was secure. On Aug. 1, the Iranian embassy in Kabul urged all Iranians to leave Afghanistan.

After the Taliban seized Herat a few days later, a senior Iranian foreign ministry official tweeted that Herat’s new masters were “committed” to protecting the staff of the Iranian consulate in the city, as if to counter perceptions among Iranians that the Taliban were a potential threat. Nonetheless, as the fighting thickened, Iran relocated its diplomats from its other Afghanistan consulates in Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, and Jalalabad to the Kabul embassy.

As the Taliban government takes shape, the very least Iran seeks is cordial working relations. Like in Iraq, Tehran conceivably prefers a central government strong enough to rein in jihadists but weak enough to be politically pliable and not pose a military threat. Iran’s leaders know that despite assurances, the Sunni fundamentalist militia could still flip against Shiite Iran.

To avert another civil war across the border (and in what is likely a vain hope to constrain the Taliban), Iran continues emphasizing the need for an inclusive Afghan government. That may be too late—the newly appointed acting government in Kabul includes no ethnic minorities, only Pashtuns—including hard-liners. So far, the Taliban have largely refrained from harassing the Hazara and have, in contrast to Taliban rule before 2001, even allowed them to observe the Shiite holiday Ashura. But when the Taliban conquered Bazarak, Afghanistan, the capital of the opposition-held, Tajik-dominated Panjshir Valley, Tehran censured the Taliban for taking Bazarak by force instead of negotiating and warned foreign powers against involvement in the Taliban’s military campaign following allegations that Pakistan had assisted in the Panjshir fighting.

The return of the Taliban marks an inflection point in the region’s politics akin to the United States’ 2001 intervention, the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, and the 2011 Arab uprisings.

In the worst case, renewed civil war would again threaten Iran’s eastern borders. War could send even more refugees, arms, and drugs across the border, not to mention jihadists loyal to a score of reinvigorated Sunni extremist militias with varying agendas. Even short of a broader conflagration in Afghanistan, it remains unclear whether the Taliban will—or can—discipline these other jihadist groups and rein in their cross-border activities. The suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport on Aug. 26 by the Islamic State-Khorasan was, of course, not aimed at Iran but must nonetheless have raised alarms in Tehran about what can happen under the Taliban’s watch. Furthermore, the Islamic State-Khorasan, whose core the U.S. military estimates to number some 2,000 fighters, could plausibly blend in with the Taliban’s rank-and-file, making identification a challenge even for the latter.

Iran’s cautious wager on a cooperative Taliban appears to be paying off so far. On the Taliban’s request, Iran has resumed gasoline and diesel deliveries to Afghanistan. Iran’s trade with Afghanistan—currently among Iran’s top five markets for exports outside of oil—has reportedly returned to normal at all three official border crossings. Furthermore, the Taliban have invited Iran to the new government’s inauguration, alongside Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey, and Qatar, although the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conditioned attendance on the Taliban’s actions.

Conversely, Iran maintains leverage in Afghanistan through the Fatemiyoun Brigade, one of several fighting units established by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force to intervene in the Syrian civil war. The brigade comprises thousands of Shiite fighters recruited heavily among Afghan refugees in Iran in exchange for citizenship and economic benefits—though often under duress, including threat of deportation. On July 28, a Fatemiyoun official denied reports the unit would redeploy to Afghanistan against the Taliban and instead accused the United States and Israel of trying to instigate conflict.

Still, given the Fatemiyoun Brigade’s origins and the prospect that its members could now be fighting for real stakes in their home country rather than far from home in Syria, Iran could easily deploy them in Afghanistan if necessary. Additionally, while Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani still struggles with restoring the control wielded over Iraq’s Shiite militants by his late predecessor, Qasem Soleimani, Qaani has deep experience and connections in Afghanistan and Central Asia and is well positioned to deal with instability to Iran’s east. For now, however, this is a scenario Iran wants, by all means, to avoid. Briefing the Iranian parliament in a closed-door session, Qaani suggested Iran was at pains to avoid conflict with Afghanistan’s “Sunnis”—read the Taliban, first and foremost—which he accused the United States of trying to foment.

Furthermore, Afghanistan is a multilateral problem requiring a regional multilateral response. This strengthens Iran’s justification to be admitted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Other than neutral Turkmenistan, Iran is Afghanistan’s only direct neighbor without full membership in the organization, where its status is still that of an observer state. SCO members, including Tajikistan and especially China, have previously demurred over Iranian membership. Reasons include, perhaps most importantly, the group’s reluctance to be perceived as overtly tilted against the West. (With Russia and China as the SCO’s founding members, that conclusion could be easily drawn.)

But now, post-withdrawal Afghanistan once again cuts to the heart of the SCO’s mandate to combat terrorism, extremism, and separatism as well as promote regional stability—which could turn out to be more difficult without involving Iran. Intriguingly, just four days before the fall of Kabul, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani confidently tweeted that the “political obstacles to Iran’s SCO membership are gone, and Tehran’s membership will soon be finalized.”

The reconstitution of Taliban-run Afghanistan marks an inflection point in the region’s politics akin to the United States’ 2001 intervention, the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, and the 2011 Arab uprisings. These earlier events, too, forced Iran to reckon with rapidly evolving threats and opportunities.

Tehran has had the foresight to cultivate the Taliban in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal. Even so, the world’s largest Islamic theocracy will now likely find itself hedging against the new theocracy to the east—with half of Iran’s population, 1/34th of its GDP, and nothing like its military capabilities but a proven potential to spread instability. The United States may have lost Afghanistan, but whether this is Iran’s gain is hardly clear.

Kevjn Lim is a senior risk advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit and an adjunct research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

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