Relations between Tehran and Taliban face uncertain future
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During his recent visit to Tehran, Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, agreed on a trade deal and discussed mutual concerns about narcotics and refugee issues.
Reportedly, Iran also used the occasion to mend fences between the Taliban and its political opponents in Afghanistan, including Ahmad Masoud, the son of the late Ahmad Shah Masoud, and Ismael Khan, a warlord from Herat province. Both are ethnically Tajik, and both are key allies of Iran in Afghanistan.
Crippled by US economic sanctions and threatened by Daesh terrorism, Iran and the Taliban currently have a common cause through which to foster economic, political and security cooperation. The question is how far this amity will hold in the future.
Since 1979, Iran’s clerical regime has had to deal with successive troubles in Afghanistan — from the war against the Soviets and the subsequent Mujahideen infighting, to the previous Taliban rule and the war on terror after its fall — to prevent any potentially debilitating implications. Similar pragmatism motivates Iran’s current diplomatic outreach to the de facto Taliban regime.
Throughout this time, Tehran’s strategic priority has been located beyond its western frontier, in the Middle East, particularly the Arabian Gulf, where it seeks to incite sectarian minorities and support militant movements against Arab governments. This focus requires relative stability along Iran’s eastern border with Afghanistan, where constant warfare has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
While the potential risks resulting from this are worrisome for all neighboring nations, they are a particular concern for Iran as it aspires to reap the benefits of the US exit from Afghanistan last year.
Tehran’s strategy during 20 years of the war in Afghanistan has worked well. In 2001, it tacitly supported the US in the defeat of the Taliban, the formation of the interim Afghan government, and by providing battlefield intelligence against Al-Qaeda.
However, the subsequent US declaration of the “axis of evil” prompted Iran to covertly support the Taliban resurgence without directly threatening US interests in the country. The subsequent US decision to invade Iraq enabled Tehran to up the ante in the Middle East while it openly engaged with the Taliban.
The Iranian regime considers the US retreat from Kabul a vindication of its “axis of resistance” strategy of employing militias to spur violent upsurges across the Middle East.
Now, pleased by the US “military defeat and withdrawal” from its “geopolitical backyard,” Tehran is placating the Taliban in an effort to bypass US economic sanctions through enhanced trade, sharing power with Afghan Tajik and Hazara leaders, and addressing the cross-border flow of narcotics, refugees and extremism.
For similar reasons it has bonded with other Afghan neighbors, including Pakistan, and regional stakeholders, such as Russia and China, to fill the post-US political vacuum in Afghanistan.
This pragmatic quest in Afghanistan faces formidable challenges for the foreseeable future, however.
It all depends on how the humanitarian crisis in the country unfolds. If it worsens this year and leads to a renewed wave of civil war and terrorism, a repeat of the regional proxy wars might occur. In such an eventuality, Tehran would prefer to rejoin Russia, India and Central Asian republics in supporting the Hazara and Tajik factions in the Northern Alliance, as it did in the 1990s.
The National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Masoud, could be the new nemesis of the Taliban. This time, the Iranians would have a bigger force at their disposal: The Liwa Fatemiyoun militia of battle-hardened Hazaras, recruited by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to wage the Syrian war. They have mostly returned home and would not hesitate to fight the Taliban.
Even if we rule out this worst-case scenario — which none of Afghanistan’s neighbors or regional stakeholders want — Iran’s ability to capitalize on economic, political and security interests in Taliban-led Afghanistan is constrained by several factors.
Firstly, the current marriage of convenience between Tehran and the Taliban is built on shaky ground, given ideological differences that are rooted in competing theocracies. The predominantly Pashtun Taliban is also poles apart from Iran’s Afghan Tajik and Hazara allies. This explains why Iran and the Taliban nearly went to war in 1998 when several Iranian diplomats were murdered in Mazar-e-Sharif after it fell to the Taliban.
Moreover, their current common ground in opposition to Daesh in Khorasan Province is because the terrorist group stands for the caliphate, while the Taliban believe in the emirate and clerical Iran is run on the basis of Vilayat-e-Faqih, or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. It is only a matter of time before decades of ethno-sectarian discord and outright conflict resurface to undermine limited diplomatic gains motivated primarily by crippling economic conditions.
Secondly, while the long presence of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan served as a blessing in disguise for Tehran, its sudden withdrawal has increased Iran’s economic woes. With an estimated $2 billion in oil and non-oil exports to Afghanistan, Iran could shore up its foreign reserves and circumvent the effects of foreign sanctions over the past two decades.
The freezing of $9.5 billion of Afghan funds by the US, shrinking the country’s economy by half, has raised the cost of Iranian products for Afghan households and businesses, thereby reducing demand and causing inflation to spiral in Iran.
The US is not ready to unfreeze the Afghan funds any time soon. Nor can Iran hope to evade the full effects of US sanctions even if the nuclear deal is revived, and only enjoy partial relief.
Thirdly, Tehran’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan — including the use of Iran’s Chabahar port and related infrastructure, which was built with Indian support to create a hub for trade with Central Asian republics — effectively hinge on the Taliban’s readiness to include Tajik and Hazara leaders in the government, thereby allowing Iran to increase its political influence in Afghanistan.
The fact is that Kabul is currently controlled by hard-liners from Kandahar and Haqqani leaders, who toe the Pakistani line. Given its historic rivalry with India, which has played its part in worsening the Afghan conflict, Islamabad will resist Tehran’s attempts to further undermine its Afghan transit trade earnings, which experienced an 80 percent decline during the past decade.
Finally, Iran’s security concerns along the border with Afghanistan, which stretches for more than 900km, also underscores the fragility of its currently amicable relations with the Taliban. Tehran would be happy if thousands of the Afghan refugees crossing into its territory daily, or half of the world’s narcotics that originate in Afghanistan and are smuggled through Iran, end up in Europe.
The problem is that the flow of drugs and refugees also leaves a debilitating footprint on its society and economy. Iran’s fears concerning the resurgence of extremist violence in the border regions of Khorasan and Sistan-Balochistan have not gone away, nor has its lingering conflict with Afghanistan over the sharing of scarce water resources.
• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.