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The Taliban and Iran: How Enemies become Frenemies?
The descent of Taliban leaders from a Qatari C-17 aircraft at Kandahar’s airport, leading to the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, can be compared to the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979, which led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini, from the French village of Nouvel Loussato, drew millions of revolutionaries to the streets of Tehran to oust Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and Taliban leaders in Qatar, led thousands of insurgents and suicide bombers, causing Ashraf Ghani to flee the country. The result of both the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the fundamentalist insurgency in Afghanistan was the establishment of religious governments under the authority and leadership of clerics. However, unlike the Iranian regime, the Taliban depends on strong bilateral relations with regional countries, particularly its neighbors, including Iran, for survival.
The Taliban’s relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran has significantly transformed throughout the years, particularly post 9/11. During the first period of the group’s rule, in 1996, the Taliban was hostile to Iran. The hostility led to the Taliban killing Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Iran supporting the anti-Taliban resistance forces. However, following the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2001, Iran became more sympathetic to the Taliban as they were both fighting the United States.
In the years following 2001, Iran supported the Taliban and gave them the resources they needed to run their insurgency. Even Mullah Omar’s successor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, visited with Iranian officials on numerous occasions.
In addition to fighting a common enemy, the opium trade has strengthened the Taliban’s relationship with Iran. The Quds branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been intimately involved in the drug trade. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department announced in a report that one of the senior commanders of the Quds Force, Sardar Gholam Reza Baghbani, was one of the commanders of the Quds Force in Zahedan, had provided part of the transit facility for narcotics produced by the Taliban. Further, earlier in August, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, went on record to say that Iranian authorities are attempting to censor him as he criticizes the corrupt linkages between Iranian security forces and the Taliban. Moreover, Iran sees the Taliban as a key partner in ensuring that Iran maintains access to the water in Afghanistan’s western provinces, bordering Iran, as Iran faces water scarcity.
The cordial relationship between Iran and the Taliban has been bolstered by Qatar facilitating the Taliban’s political office in Doha. Amid the evacuation crisis, Qatar pledges to maintain the security of Kabul airport, playing a key role in providing security to stabilize the presence of the Islamic Emirate. The friendship between Iran and Qatar has further alienated Qatar from Saudi Arabia who deems Iran as its political rival. Although Saudi Arabia was a staunch supporter of the Taliban in the 1990s, among the only three countries recognizing the Taliban at the time, the Kingdom is no longer as influential in Afghanistan as it was in the 1990s.
The Taliban’s sudden takeover has intensified the group’s internal struggle for power. As the new rulers of the country, the group is conducting intense negotiations regarding the country’s future political structure. Although the group has announced a caretaker government, which has allowed it to assess the reception of the international community, the Taliban will likely look to its western neighbor to develop a similar, but Sunni-dominated, permanent political system with an amir instead of a supreme leader. This setup, similar to Iran, would also end the Taliban’s internal strife between the different branches. A structure focused on a council system that would monopolize power in the hands of a limited circle of clerics and leaders, with an outward appearance of inclusivity through the placement of pro-Taliban moderate figures in administrative positions. This would be a viable solution, identical to Iran’s power structure, to avoid any internal clash by dividing power through the multiple layers and branches of a bureaucratic system. Further, this setup would enable it to include technocrats into its government while ensuring that the group retains its power.
Such window dressing efforts of inclusivity would be part of the Taliban’s efforts to gain international recognition, but would nevertheless, keep it at odds with the U.S. In a recent interview with Fox News, the Taliban warned Washington that the issue of women’s rights is an internal matter for the Taliban to decide. Further, any bilateral tension between the U.S. and Iran due to nuclear talks would likely affect Washington’s relationship with the Taliban who seeks to prioritize its relationship with the regional countries over the U.S. As the Islamic Emirate forms its government, the biggest challenge for the Taliban will be to balance its relationship with foreign countries, including the United States. Amid the possibility of the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and the U.S., the impact of these talks will have repercussions in Kabul.
The relationship between the Taliban and Iran is based on mutual interests rather than a long-term vision-based strategic partnership. Although U.S. animosity has served as the basis for this bilateral relationship, there are still stark fundamental differences between both Tehran and the Taliban which will continue to be tested as the Taliban must tolerate Iranian-backed figures in Kabul and ensure the protection of Shias in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has significantly altered the political landscape of the region. Following its departure, Kabul-Washington relations will be influenced by Washington’s relationships with regional countries, including Tehran.