The Iranian approach to the Taliban has evolved over the last two decades, primarily responding to the changes in the Taliban’s relations with the United States (US), Iran’s regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and also Iran’s own relations with Washington. Over the last decade, political and security realities in Afghanistan and the wider region have informed Iran’s engagement with the Taliban, while ideological concerns have taken a backseat.
Beginnings of a Cautious Engagement
In 2001, Iran cooperated with the US in removing the Taliban with the help of the Northern Alliance comprising of Tajik, Uzbek and Shi’i groups, supported by India and Russia. At the Bonn Conference (2001), Iran played a constructive role in reaching the Bonn Declaration on post-Taliban interim government and provisional constitution for Afghanistan.[i] Tehran took a pro-democratic and anti-terrorism stance, insisting that the provision for elections in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism cooperation be included in the draft agreement.
In the post-Taliban era, given Iran’s security interests on its eastern frontier, major share of Iran’s reconstruction assistance focussed on the Herat province. In what was one of the earliest projects of Iran in Afghanistan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) built a road from Dogharoun/Islam Qala border crossing to Herat at the cost of USD 60 million.[ii] Iran has invested over USD 660 million in a 225 kilometre (km) railway line from Khaf in the north-eastern Iran to Herat. A 140 km section of the line was inaugurated in December 2020.[iii] These projects were aimed at creating a sphere of economic influence in Herat for Iran and in potentially establishing connectivity with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which share borders with Afghanistan. It is worth mentioning that Herat has been historically and culturally a part of greater Iran. It was only after numerous failed efforts to establish Iranian suzerainty over it for over half a century that in 1857 a peace treaty ending the Anglo-Persian war that Iran gave up territorial claims over Herat.[iv]
Iran had to recalibrate its approach to the Taliban after President Bush’s designation of Iran as part of the ‘Axis-of-Evil’ and rising tensions with Washington over its nuclear programme. In 2007, when calls for US and Israeli pre-emptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities escalated in Washington, Iran shifted its policy of supporting the Karzai government as a bulwark against the Taliban and Al-Qaida to extending support to the Taliban with the aim of creating insecurity for the US troops in the country.[v] Iran’s role in conflict theatres involving the US such as Afghanistan and Iraq was part of cultivating strategic depth by engaging anti-Iran forces outside Iran’s borders.
Iran’s Involvement in Afghanistan Peace Process
In a far cry from the mid-1990s when Iran saw the Taliban as a group of Saudi-sponsored Sunni extremists and a US proxy seeking to counter Iran’s Islamic Revolution, it now sees Taliban as an Afghanistan-based local actor. Since 2014, the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seen by Tehran as virulently anti-Shi’i and a global threat present on both western and eastern borders of Iran, further moderated Tehran’s view of the Taliban. Given its goal of forcing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Tehran has supported the Taliban as a legal actor in the Afghan settlement process, even as it continued with its long-standing policy of preventing dominance of Afghan polity by the Pashtun plurality or complete Taliban control of the country through war.[vi]
This officially sanctioned reformed view of the Taliban at a time when Taliban made rapid advances across the country, has invited criticism from important figures in Iran’s religious-political circles. After a Principlist daily Kayhan, whose director is appointed by the Supreme Leader, wrote on June 25, 2021 that “existing Taliban is different from Taliban we knew before, and beheaded people,” Ayatollah Asadullah Bayat Zanjani of reformist Association of Combatant Clerics criticised this portrayal of Taliban as a moderate force.[vii] While calling the Taliban “a radical, violent and terrorist” group like the ISIS, he argued that a similar “Shi’ite version” of Islamic fundamentalism could be fostered in Iran through lack of concern about “violent and merciless readings of Islam”.[viii] On July 15, Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Saafi Golpaygani, who is the senior most Marja (the ‘source of emulation’ for Shi’i followers) living in Iran, argued that trusting Taliban was an irreparable mistake.[ix]
In early July, amid escalating violence and stalled inter-Afghan talks in Qatar, Tehran sought to fill the diplomatic gap by hosting Taliban representatives and the Afghan government.[x] Hosting intra-Afghan negotiations on July 8 and 9, the Iranian Foreign Minsiter Javad Zarif argued that US has suffered ‘defeat’ in Afghanistan after 20 years of war, while asking both sides to commit to political solutions.[xi] Zarif went on to portray Taliban as partners in Jihad against foreign occupiers, namely the US. Meeting Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said that Iran will not ‘recognise’ any group to seize power by war in Afghanistan.[xii] Iran, therefore, has pressed for political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, while indicating to the Taliban that it will not recognise an ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ dominated by them.
As Iran was hosting intra-Afghan talks, Taliban took over Islam Qala, Afghanistan’s biggest crossing with Iran, and two other crossings Abu Nasr Farahi in Farah province and Zaranj in Nimruz province fell in quick succession. The defensive responsibility of Iran’s 945 km border with Afghanistan lies with the Iranian Army or Artesh, but soon after Herat fell under Taliban control that raised fear of massive refugee influx into Iran, Hossein Salami, the Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC dismissed rumours of clashes between Taliban and Iranian border guards. Salami argued that “People should not worry at all, because the scope of our observations has gone beyond the borders and we are monitoring and controlling all the developments in the neighbouring country.”
IRGC affiliated Quds Force had worked closely with the Northern Alliance until the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Esmail Qaani, the current chief of Quds Force, has played a key role in the creation of Fatimiyoun Division comprising Shi’i militias from Afghanistan, which are fighting in support of Assad government in Syria and alongside Houthis in Yemen. Amid reports of Fatimiyoun volunteers being deployed to fight Taliban in Afghanistan, on July 20, the Division issued an official statement blaming the “American-Zionist media” for reporting that its members were present in the battlefields of Afghanistan.[xiii] At a time when Iran is engaging Taliban for a peaceful political solution, it will resist the temptation of deploying Fatimiyoun on the behalf of Afghanistan’s Shi’i minority.
Ismail Khan, a former warlord and a key member of the Northern Alliance mobilised citizen militias, which alongside the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) stalled the Taliban’s advance into Herat for two weeks.[xiv] However, once the Taliban seized the city of Herat on August 13, it detained the provincial governor and Ismail Khan, who after surrendering to the Taliban was given a safe exit to Iran. It would seem that Iran has been keen to avoid clashes that will cause further insecurity and unleash refugee influx across the border into Iran. But the Fatimiyoun Division and Iran’s influence with former warlords remains an important instrument of leverage for Tehran to realise its objective that the new order in Afghanistan is not exclusively dominated by the Taliban.
Seyyed Rasoul Mousavi, Deputy Foreign Minister and Director-General of the South Asia Department at Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs speaking about the two-day July meeting between Taliban delegation and representatives from Afghan government stated: “The participants in the Tehran meeting were a unique team. A group that believed in the republican system.”[xv] Mousavi went on to elaborate how Iran had offered to mediate between Afghan government and Taliban during a visit to Tehran by Mohammad Hanif Atmar, then National Security Advisor of Afghanistan in July 2017 and how the issue was raised by Ali Shamkhani when he met Atmar’s successor Hamdullah Mohib in January 2018 in Kabul. Iran’s overture for mediation was induced by its security concerns about the emergence and spread of ISIS called as ‘takfiri terrorists’ by Iran and its allies.[xvi]
Revival of a Regional Framework?
A key feature of Iran’s security policy has been the emphasis on regional approach as opposed to international approach involving donors and security partners from Western countries.[xvii] It maintains that regional problems/crises should be resolved by active involvement and cooperation among regional players. Tehran shares Beijing’s and Moscow’s security concerns about Islamic State –Khorasan Province (IS-K) expanding in the region bordering Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. For now, they have settled on a policy of engaging Taliban to secure borders and bring stability to Afghanistan.
From 1997 to 2001, Iran was part of the 6+2 framework involving four countries bordering Afghanistan that is China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan plus the US and Russia. The premise underlying the framework was that conflict in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without the involvement of neighbouring states. Under the aegis of the United Nations, the 6+2 framework discussed ways to solve the political crisis caused by civil war following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and assist in the establishment of a broadly representative, multi-ethnic government that would have included the Afghan Northern Alliance. Later the group played a role in establishing post-Taliban government for Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken in a letter sent to President Ashraf Ghani in March 2021, had suggested a regional approach involving states with influence on various Afghan parties, which can collaborate to impose peace. As part of high-level diplomatic efforts, the US intended to ask the United Nations (UN) to convene a meeting of the Foreign Ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan.[xviii] Even as such a meeting has not materialised, Tehran took a favourable view of a potential UN-convened conference of regional countries on Afghanistan.[xix]
In March 2021, Iran was invited by Moscow to join the ‘extended troika’ meeting involving China, US and Russia, who constitute the ‘troika’ that has held regular consultations on Afghanistan over the last two years, plus Pakistan. Tehran had to decline the invitation as it was unwilling to share the negotiating table with Washington at a time when the two countries have been engaged in indirect talks to revive the nuclear deal.[xx] For its part, Iran, which sees itself and India as counterweight to Pakistan in Afghanistan, has welcomed “New Delhi’s efforts for establishing security in Afghanistan.”[xxi]
As Iran is set to play a key diplomatic role along with Russia, Pakistan and China in influencing the political settlement in Kabul, its objectives in the country exhibit a modicum of continuity in the sense that it will support an inclusive and representative order. However, Tehran might have to rethink its current posture of diplomacy vis-a-vis the Taliban, if the latter’s rhetoric of forming an ‘inclusive government’ proves to be a fiction with time.
*Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
[i] James Dobbins, “Negotiating with Iran: Reflections from Personal Experience.” The Washington Quarterly, 33:1, p.151-52.
[iii] Iran-Afghanistan Railway Connection Opened, Railway-pro, 16 December, 2020, https://www.railwaypro.com/wp/iran-afghanistan-railway-connection-opened/ (Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[iv] Abbas Amanat, Iran: A Modern History, New Haven & Yale University Press: London, p.362
[v] Barnett R. Rubin and Sara Barmaglich, The US and Iran in Afghanistan: A Policy gone Awry, MIT Center for International Studies, October, 2008, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/93911/Audit_10_08_Rubin.pdf (Accessed on 18 August, 2021)
[vi] Fatemeh Aman, Iran-Taliban Growing Ties: What’s different this time?, Atlantic Council, 16 February, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-taliban-growing-ties-whats-different-this-time/ (Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[vii] Iranian Ayatollah raises Concerns over Taliban as Herat Threatened, Iran International, 4 August, 2021, https://iranintl.com/en/world/iranian-ayatollah-raises-concerns-over-taliban-herat-threatened (Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[ix] Message of Grand Ayatollah Saafi Golpaygani regarding tragic incidents of Afghanistan, ABNA, 17 July, 2021, https://en.abna24.com/news//message-of-grand-ayatollah-saafi-golpaygani-regarding-tragic-incidents-of-afghanistan_1160977.html (Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[x] Afghan govt’s delegation meets Taliban in Iran, Al-Jazeera, 8 July, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/8/afghan-govt-delegation-meets-taliban-in-iran (Accessed on 16 August, 2021)
[xi] US Ended up with Defeat in Afghanistan, Zarif says at Intra-Afghan talks in Tehran, Tasnim News, 7 July, 2021, https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2021/07/07/2534249/us-ended-up-with-defeat-in-afghanistan-zarif-says-at-intra-afghan-talks-in-tehran (Accessed on 16 August, 2021)
[xii] Seizing power by war in Afghanistan unacceptable, Shamkhani says, Tehran Times , 27 January, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/457451/Seizing-power-by-war-in-Afghanistan-unacceptable-Shamkhani-says (Accessed on 16 August, 2021)
[xiii] Can the IRGC-Taliban honeymoon continue? (Part-1), Middle East Institute, 30 July, 2021, https://mei.edu/publications/can-irgc-taliban-honeymoon-continue-part-1(Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[xiv] Taliban detains veteran militia chief Khan in Afghanistan’s Herat—Official, Reuters, 13 August, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-detain-veteran-militia-chief-khan-afghanistans-herat-official-2021-08-13/ (Accessed on 16 August, 2021)
[xv] US is Responsible for Crisis in Afghanistan, Tehran Times, 14 July, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/463144/U-S-is-responsible-for-crisis-in-Afghanistan (Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[xvi] Atmar Meets Iran National Security Advisor in Tehran, The Killid Group, 25 July, 2017, https://tkg.af/english/2017/07/25/atmar-meets-iran-national-security-advisor-tehran/ (Accessed on 17 August, 2021)
[xvii] Ellen Laipson, Engaging Iran on Afghanistan, Stimson Center, March 2012, https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/Engaging_Iran_on_Afghanistan_1.pdf (Accessed on 18 August, 2021)
[xviii] Rezaul Laskar, India, Iran and Russia to be part of the new US push to find settlement in Afghanistan, Hindustan Times, 7 March, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/india-iran-russia-to-be-part-of-new-us-push-to-find-settlement-in-afghanistan-101615131002914.html (Accessed on 18 August, 2021)
[xix] Iran open to UN-Led Afghan Talks as US keeps option of troop pull-out by May 1, Iran International, 8 March, 2021, https://iranintl.com/en/world/iran-open-un-led-afghan-talks-us-keeps-option-troop-pull-out-may-1 (Accessed on 24 August, 2021)
[xxi] President Raisi starts work seriously, Tehran Times, 6 August, 2021, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/463773/President-Raisi-starts-work-seriously (Accessed on 18 August, 2021)