Iran has grown closer to the Taliban over the last two decades, and particularly since their takeover in Afghanistan just over a year ago. This may appear puzzling given the Taliban’s hostility toward Shiite Muslims. To explain it, we need to look at Afghanistan’s post-9/11 history and the complex interdependencies between the two countries.
Iran has traditionally been a significant player in Afghanistan, its poorer and troubled eastern neighbour. The two countries have close cultural ties. Afghan Tajiks, Hazaras and Aimaqs speak languages close to Farsi, and the lingua franca in Afghanistan is Dari, which is mutually understandable with Farsi, and not the Pashto of the largest ethnic group. In addition, around ten percent of Afghans are Shiite Muslims, mostly among the Hazara minority, and most of them follow the Twelver Islam that dominates in Iran (the rest are Ismailis).
Iran’s main rival for ascendancy in Afghanistan is its second eastern neighbour, Pakistan. Relations between the two countries have been tense since their re-Islamisation in the late 1970s – after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and General Zia ul-Haq’s 1977 coup in Pakistan – due mainly to the anti-Shiite character of the Sunni Islamism of the latter. The flames of Sunni radicalism in the region have been fanned by both Pakistan and its closest ally, Saudi Arabia, which happens to be Iran’s main competitor for regional influence.
Tehran has sought to maintain and increase its influence in Afghanistan by using political and economic tools. It considers itself the protector of the Hazara minority, but it has also cultivated relationships with predominantly Sunni communities, especially the Tajiks, who made up the bulk of the Northern Alliance who fought the Taliban in 1990s. From an economic perspective Iran is one of the main exporters to Afghanistan – a non-negligible market for the Islamic Republic given the international sanctions it is under. It is also the main investor in the Herat province, on its northeastern border, as well as a major provider of development aid.
Tehran saw with concern the rise of the fiercely anti-Shiite Taliban in the mid-1990s and supported the Northern Alliance’s war of resistance against the Taliban-declared Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, while the latter was backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In 1998 tensions almost erupted into open war when the Taliban conquered the interim capital of the Northern Alliance, Mazar-i-Sharif, massacring thousands of people. Taliban fighters laid siege to the Iranian consulate and ten diplomats and a journalist from Iran’s state news agency IRNA were killed, and several dozen other Iranians were taken hostage. Tehran responded by deploying tens of thousands of troops at the border, but the UN mediated to get the hostages released and the situation was defused.
When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, Iran provided them with intelligence and proxy support. It also helped build the national unity government that replaced the Taliban, and even expelled one of the warlords it had hosted for years, mujahideen leader and drug trafficker Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who spoke out against the invasion. The regime in Tehran saw itself as Washington’s partner in Afghanistan, sharing an interest to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, stabilise the country and stem the opium trade. It came as a shock to see Iran included in George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” only a few months later.
Fears of a US invasion from Afghanistan combined with another factor: The Taliban fell out with Saudi Arabia, which was increasingly frustrated at their refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government and to denounce their links to al-Qaeda. Tehran started providing some weapons to the Taliban to keep its insurgency going and Western troops, busy. As early as 2009 the US military denounced that Taliban fighters were using Iranian-made weapons. Some may have been trafficked for profit, but there is evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were also involved.
Then in 2015 came the emergence of Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of the Islamic State with a similar agenda of global jihad. Given its extremist anti-Shiite stance, it was considered an existential threat by Iran and Afghan Shiites. But the Taliban were also concerned by the rise of the group, which attracted defectors from their ranks and started taking over territory under their control. Tehran was not confident in the Afghan armed forces’ ability to defeat ISKP, so its hitherto limited support for the Taliban turned into high-level contacts.
Iran was playing a double game, trying to avoid alienating their traditional allies in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul while assisting the Taliban. In addition, it was aware of tensions within the movement. A faction led by veteran Taliban Abdul Ghani Baradar – currently acting first deputy prime minister – has become more pragmatic and moderate in the hope of securing international recognition and aid. Two other factions, led by Mawlavi Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani – sons of Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani of the al-Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network, respectively – are more ideological and radical. While Baradar is keen to work with Islamic Republic, the factions led by the younger men reject any collaboration with the Shiite regime.
In any case, Iran sees it in its interest to foster a stable government in Afghanistan even if it means compromising with its former enemies. In July 2021, when the Taliban were still pretending that they were willing to reach a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government after the American withdrawal, Tehran hosted an “dialogue summit” with high level delegations from both sides. The summit was a complementary initiative to the US-promoted official negotiations taking place in Doha and intended to boost Iran’s diplomatic role in the region.
During the mid-August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Iranian embassy in Kabul was one of the few to remain operational. On 28 August Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated, matter-of-factly, that “the nature of our relations with governments depends on the nature of their relations with us.” Less than two months later, on 4 October, the first foreign delegation to visit the new rulers of Kabul was made up of Iranian officials who came to discuss trade and transit issues.
Iran has also participated in the regular meetings of Afghanistan’s six neighbours plus the Russian Federation. These were launched online on September 2021, and the following month Tehran hosted the first in-person meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The purported objective of the meetings is to promote an inclusive government in Afghanistan; at present, it is all-Taliban and almost all-Pashtun.
Then in January 2022, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abollahian received the acting Foreign Minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Amin Khan Muttaqi. During his stay in Tehran, Muttaqi also met two Afghan opposition leaders who have found refuge in Iran, Ismail Khan and Ahmad Massoud. The former was a senior commander in the Northern Alliance and a close confidant of its leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al-Qaeda as a present to the Taliban only days before 9/11. The latter is Massoud’s son and now leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.
Bilateral relations between the two neighbours have continued to develop: In April, Iran acknowledged the presence of Taliban diplomats at the Afghan embassy in Tehran, although it insisted that this did not imply formal recognition of the Taliban regime, which will be withheld until they form a more inclusive government. In July, a deal was announced whereby Iran would sell the fuel-starved Islamic Emirate 350,000 tons of oil.
Iran’s pragmatic attitude responds to its interests. As well as a shared concern for ISKP, they need to discuss issues like water rights and refugees with the new Afghan government. Tehran is particularly troubled by the Kamal Khan Dam over the river Helmand, which opened in 2021 and could starve of water the Hamoun wetlands in its south-eastern Sistan and Balochistan province. The wetlands are already drying up due to climate change and poor water management, and a further deterioration of the situation could exacerbate the low-intensity insurgency by Baloch Sunni militants in the province.
As for the refugees, Iran hosts nearly four million Afghans – less than a quarter of them registered with the UNHCR –, including hundreds of thousands born and raised in the country. Their numbers put pressure on health services and on the job market, which has led to local resentment. Last April videos of Iranians attacking Afghans in several cities went viral on social media, leading to demonstrations in Afghanistan during which protestors threw rocks at the Iranian embassy in Kabul and its consulate in Herat. Iran reacted by summoning Afghanistan’s chargé d’affairs in Tehran and suspending its diplomatic mission for a couple of weeks, but it needs the Afghan authorities’ collaboration to avoid new floods of refugees.
A special group of Afghan refugees are those who make up the bulk of Liwa Fatemiyoun. This brigade of 10,000 to 15,000 men is made up of Shiite Muslims, mostly Afghans but also Pakistanis. It was set up by the IRGF ostensibly to protect the Shiite sites in Syria and has been fighting on the side of the Syrian regime and its allies. Given the stalemate in Syria, there has been speculation that the battle-hardened brigade might be redeployed in Afghanistan to fight ISKP. However, that seems doubtful without the consent of the Taliban, and they are unlikely to agree.
Another concern is smuggling. Iran is a key link in the Golden Crescent and has the highest per capita number of opioid addicts in the world, reaching two million people according to the Iranian authorities. Nearly 4,000 Iranian police officers and border guards have been killed trying to stem the traffic over the last three decades. However, the most recent border incident was not over opium; in December 2021 a Taliban fighter was killed and nine Iranian police officers killed or wounded during a fuel smuggling operation. Both sides were keen to minimise the skirmish, attributing to a “misunderstanding”, but such incidents could escalate.
Iran-Taliban engagement works to the benefit of both sides. Over the last few years, the Taliban have sought to appear as a nationwide movement and have made efforts to recruits among the ethnic minorities. Their ranks now reportedly include Uzbeks and Hazaras eager to fight ISKP, and in 2020 they appointed a Hazara governor in Balkhab district. Since retaking power, they have held talks with some Hazara leaders seeking to obtain guarantees of minority rights and secure a political role. And in the recent Shiite Ashura celebrations, they protected the crowds against ISKP’s constant attacks.
Western governments have been dismayed at the Taliban’s treatment of women, and Iranian foreign minister Amir-Abollahian raised the issue with its acting Afghan counterpart Muttaqi during the third meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbours and Russia in China last March – raising many eyebrows due to the Islamic Republic’s own treatment of women. However, that particular issue is unlikely to be a dealbreaker for Tehran.