Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan “an opportunity to restore life, security, and lasting peace in that country.” Tehran will certainly play a role in shaping the way post-withdrawal Afghanistan develops. Indeed, Iranian leaders have historically adopted flexible and pragmatic policies to avoid the instability that might spill across their borders. Yet whatever policy they adopt, “lasting peace” may prove elusive.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Tehran has had five main interests in Afghanistan: to maintain Iran as a key player in the region, balance Pakistani, Western, and Taliban influence, control flows of refugees and drugs, secure continued water from Afghanistan’s western rivers, and prevent Afghanistan from turning into an anti-Shia stronghold. Iran pursues these objectives using soft and hard power. It spreads its political influence in Afghan civil society through donations and commercial exchange while forming military alliances with minority groups such as the Shiite Hazaras and Sunni Tajiks.
These goals will be particularly hard to achieve as Afghanistan’s dire economic straights provoke conflict between different Taliban factions. In this situation, Tehran will be forced to deal with two interlocking dilemmas. First, how to continue cooperating with their traditional minority allies, who largely remain in the anti-Taliban resistance, while building ties with the Taliban itself. Second, to the extent it engages the Taliban, Tehran will have to balance relations with both the more radical and accommodationist factions.
Based on a number of interviews with former Afghan officials, we believe that Tehran will struggle in its efforts to forge a cooperative relationship with the Taliban. Although the fight against the Islamic State in Afghanistan could create common ground, there are plenty of other pitfalls. The Taliban’s resistance to sharing power with ethnic minorities, its own factionalism, and the potential for more fighting on the Iranian-Afghan border are all likely to create continued security challenges for Iran.
Choosing the Most Powerful Partner
Since the 1980s Iran has advocated for an ethnically inclusive political structure to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a Sunni stronghold. When the Taliban took power the first time, Iran urged its leaders to share power with the different ethnic groups and form a broad-based government. After Afghanistan fell in 2001, Iran built ties with different Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups under the U.S.-supported Afghan government, while also supporting the Taliban insurgency against the coalition forces. But now, with the Taliban back in control, this will be harder, as the new government is less interested in sharing power with religious and ethnic minorities. Still, Tehran has continued to push for inclusion. In late 2021, it hosted a conference with the six neighboring countries plus Russia to discuss the regime change in Afghanistan. Tehran also arranged a meeting between the Taliban Foreign Minister and Tajik leaders Amir Ismail Khan and Ahmad Massoud in Tehran. At the time, the Taliban leadership welcomed both of these initiatives as a way to promote their legitimacy.
However, our interviewees believe that these efforts will ultimately fail to make the Taliban more inclusive, and risk creating additional tension. They argued that the Taliban would not be likely to bow to such pressure and pointed out that the group has so far shunned the international community’s demands for an inclusive government, even if it would lead to greater recognition. The leading Taliban commanders have specifically refused to share power with Tajik and Hazara political leaders that worked under the former governments during the last 20 years. Therefore, according to interviewees, Tehran will have to be cautious in promoting ethnic power-sharing, as it could trigger a hostile reaction from the Taliban commanders.
Dealing with Divisions
In engaging with the Taliban, Iran will also have to address the divisions within it. Our interviewees stressed that Iran is dealing with a dynamic movement made up of different security networks, that advocate for different strategies to maintain power. These security networks are largely centered on the three deputies under supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada: Mawlavi Yaqoob, Mullah Omar’s son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s son, and Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban movement. The networks under Haqqani and Yaqoob are the more radical and religious fractions. They hope to collaborate with Pakistan and China, since these neighboring countries do not object to imposing strict religious laws. They are also against compromising with the West. However, their shared strategic outlook does not make them allies: They are still competing factions that seek to increase their own power within the Taliban movement. Meanwhile, the network under Baradar is more accommodationist and wants a cordial relationship with the West in order to secure international recognition and economic aid. Baradar, who lead the diplomatic negotiations with the United States in 2019, appears to believe that this approach would strengthen his hand within the Taliban government.
It might initially seem that the conservative networks would best serve Iran’s goals of keeping the West and especially the United States out of Afghanistan. However, Iran knows that Afghanistan needs economic aid to avoid a humanitarian crisis that would lead to more fighting and more refugees, while also empowering terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the rise of the conservative networks would also work against Iran’s goal of finding a place in the new system for its minority partners.
As a result, Iran’s reaction has so far been a mixture of praising the Taliban’s tough position on the Islamic State and criticizing its apparent thirst for absolute power. In other words, Tehran is trying to remain on the path of cooperation with different networks that are in opposition to one another. However, Iranian officials have still not recognized the Taliban leadership as the rulers of Afghanistan. After a meeting in January between the two countries’ foreign ministers, Iranian officials stressed that they would not recognize the Taliban until it formed an “inclusive” government.
The Islamic State Khorasan Province as a Common Ground?
Almost all our interviewees cited the potential rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a significant threat that could improve ties between Iran and the Taliban. The transnational group is a sectarian enemy targeting Shias in general, and an ideological rival to the Taliban. It describes the Taliban as a religious-nationalist phenomenon that does not represent the true tenets of Islam. Since the Taliban takeover, attacks from the group have increased, including strikes against the Hazaras in Herat, northern Kunduz, and southern Kandahar as well as attacks against the Taliban in Kabul.
These incidents led Iranian President Raisi to warn that “Iran is ready to cooperate and use all its means to counter the threat of Takfiri terrorism and prevent recurrence of these tragedies.” However, there have been critiques of this approach inside Iran, where Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani, a member of the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics, characterized the Taliban as a radical and violent terrorist group similar to the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The alternative to cooperating with the Taliban would be to use Iran’s own militias. It is well documented that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has a strong historical connection to the ethnic Hazaras and has recruited thousands of Hazara refugees into the Fatemiyoun Brigade to fight the Islamic State in Syria. As a result, Iranian officials have proudly referred to the brigade as an effective vanguard against the Islamic State in Afghanistan. However, Iran knows that while it can apply the Fatemiyoun Brigade as a force against the group, it would require a strong and resolved Sunni force to contain it totally.
Currently, the Taliban is the best vanguard for Iran to fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan, as it would be hard for the Fatemiyoun Brigade to operate without consent from the Taliban leaders. However, the Taliban have always presented themselves as a nationalist group with zero tolerance toward the ethnic fiefdoms within Afghanistan. Thus, the Taliban is unlikely to allow the Fatemiyoun Brigade to operate freely on Afghan soil, since this would undermine its legitimacy. Instead, the Taliban could try to use the fight against Islamic State in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to help secure recognition and economic support from regional and international partners.
Ultimately, Iran’s policy will depend on how much of a threat Islamic State in Afghanistan proves to be. According to the interviews, the group will be strengthened by increasing poverty, which it has already used as a recruiting tool. Taliban leaders have downplayed its ability to remain functional in Afghanistan, which the interviewees assumed would affect Iran’s decision about how much it should compromise to get the Taliban as an ally. Conversely, the threat may prove too great for a cooperative approach. If the Taliban cannot control the country in the end, Iran will most likely engage with alternative partners to promote its objectives in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban takeover, there have been several reports of border clashes between Iranian security forces and Taliban factions driven by smuggling and tensions over water resources. In December last year, the governor of Iran’s Nimroz province stated that a battle over fuel smuggling had taken place, in which one Taliban fighter was wounded and nine Iranian border forces were killed or injured. In March this year, the Taliban clashed with Iranian security forces on the border in Nimroz after Afghan farmers began digging a local water canal. A similar incident happened in April this year. Iranian officials claimed that the Taliban had tried to construct a road close to the border zone in the Herat province. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman subsequently stated that these border issues are a very serious concern to Tehran and should be treated as such by the interim governing body of Afghanistan.
Refugees are also an important issue for Iran. Tehran has demanded that the Taliban leadership contain the flow of refugees, while Taliban leaders have raised the ill-treatment of Afghan refugees in Iran as a major problem. Videos of Iranians violently targeting Afghans in multiple cities in April 2022 led the Taliban leadership to summon the Iranian ambassador in Kabul. This was followed by demonstrations in which protesters attacked the Iranian Embassy and the Iranian Consulate in Herat with rocks. Iran responded by suspending its diplomatic missions for roughly two weeks and summoned Afghanistan’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran.
As a result of these incidents, Iran has increased its military presence at the border. Water resources and smuggling routes are considered particularly sensitive issues for Tehran, while the Taliban’s internal divisions might make it more difficult for them to prevent border incidents from happening. Hence, if the situation at the border area escalates, it could push Tehran away from working with the Taliban and toward doubling down on its minority partners.
For the near future, Tehran will most likely focus on maintaining support for ethnic minorities while also making overtures to the Taliban’s different factions. The Taliban, for its part, will most likely make some modest concessions to the ethnic minorities and use the fight against the Islamic State in Afghanistan to create areas of common ground with Tehran. But this is unlikely to be enough to maintain a partnership so long as internal fighting continues to drive instability in Afghanistan.
In July 2021, a Taliban delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abas Stanikzai informed Iranian officials that a stable relationship with them depends upon the degree of Iranian support for Tajik and Hazara political groups in the future. But unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban has also acknowledged that collaboration with Hazaras and Tajiks is necessary to avoid unrest and turmoil. Elements of the Hazara political leadership have started to engage with the Taliban in a bid to win political roles in government and to improve recognition of minority rights. The Taliban leadership has already accepted a young Shiite leader, Jafar Mahdavi, who served as a member of the parliament during Ashraf Ghani’s government. More non-Pashtun representatives are expected to be tapped for minor governmental positions according to our interviewees. A small number of Hazaras have even joined the Taliban’s networks to fight the Islamic State, while interviewees suggest the Taliban has made even more progress with members of the Uzbek minority.
While Iran may be eager to build on this, the Taliban will only allow ethnic power-sharing up to a point. They are eager to keep the Hazara and Tajiks from mobilizing against them or siding with the Islamic State. However, Iran is well aware that even these modest efforts at compromise have already created resistance from the more conservative factions in the Taliban. At worse, it could drive some conservatives to defect to the Islamic State themselves. Pragmatic Iranian leaders will try to work with different actors in Afghanistan, but the conditions in the country will make it difficult for them to overcome these dilemmas. Border disputes and refugee issues are likely to exacerbate the challenges posed by inevitable conflicts between rival Taliban factions and between the Taliban and ethnic minorities. In May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stated that “Afghan people must have an inclusive government to cover all political groups and ethnicities and as well as a government that can provide a lasting security across the country.” The Taliban, however, might have other ideas.