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Iran’s Pragmatic Approach towards Afghan Taliban

Iran’s Pragmatic Approach towards Afghan Taliban

Dr. Muhammad Akram Zaheer

Iran’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban is characterized by complexity and caution, as the two are not traditional allies. Tehran’s approach to the Taliban is influenced by numerous bilateral and regional factors, including historical animosities and disputes. One significant source of tension is the sectarian divide, as Iran, a predominantly Shia Muslim country, has a longstanding ideological rift with the Sunni Taliban. Additionally, a longstanding dispute over water resources adds to the contentious relationship. Despite these challenges, Iran has not adopted the hostile stance it took towards the Taliban in the 1990s; instead, it has sought to establish a more pragmatic and normalized relationship with the group since the latter’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021. Iran’s cautious approach to the Taliban’s ascent to power was rooted in its desire to see the withdrawal of US and Western forces from Afghanistan, which Tehran viewed as a potential source of regional stability. This shift in Iran’s stance toward the Taliban marks a significant departure from its previous confrontational interactions with the group. Overall, Iran’s engagement with the Taliban regime is a balancing act aimed at securing its own interests while navigating the complex geopolitical landscape of the region.

Iran’s current overtures toward the Taliban reflect its strategy of seeking alternatives to the US-dominated global order and its pragmatic approach towards achieving specific objectives in Afghanistan. While anti-American sentiment is not the primary driver of Tehran’s cautious engagement with the new Afghan government, Iran hopes to address its own security and political concerns through this relationship. These include the growing terror threat from the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the critical issue of water supply to eastern Iran, and the migration of Afghan refugees. Iran’s approach has been pragmatic and aims to deepen trust with Kabul, even though it has not officially recognized the Taliban regime.Despite allowing visits from prominent Afghan opposition leaders such as Ahmed Massoud and Ismail Khan, Iran understands that no domestic Afghan group currently poses a credible threat to the Taliban’s consolidated control. The major challenge to the Taliban, and by extension Iran, comes from ISKP, whose extremist agenda and violent attacks pose a significant threat to regional stability and security. ISKP’s strict interpretation of sharia law and anti-Shi’a stance makes it an inveterate enemy of Tehran.The mutual threat posed by ISKP has encouraged Iran and the Taliban to set aside their differences and collaborate on counter-terrorism efforts. Iran’s intelligence minister has publicly acknowledged cooperation with the Taliban against ISKP fighters, while Iranian parliamentarians have praised collaborative efforts that have prevented terrorist attacks. This counter-terrorism partnership offers Iran benefits, including greater border security and opportunities for joint intelligence operations with the Taliban.Such cooperation helps Iran address internal critics of its relationship with the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban by emphasizing the importance of these efforts for national and regional security. Terrorist attacks, such as those in Kerman, have prompted calls in Iran to increase security along the Afghan border. At a recent UN Security Council meeting, Iran highlighted the regional security risks posed by terrorism, drug trafficking, and border control deficiencies in Afghanistan. Through its pragmatic engagement with the Taliban, Iran seeks to safeguard its interests while contributing to regional stability.

Iran’s policy toward the Afghan Taliban is heavily influenced by geopolitical considerations, much like the approaches of China and Russia. Iran is cautious about the potential influence of other regional powers in Afghanistan and seeks to maintain a delicate balance with the Taliban regime to preserve its own interests. By refraining from actions that could provoke the Taliban, Iran aims to consolidate its position with the new leadership in Kabul, thereby limiting the impact of its rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Pakistan. Tehran’s primary concern is to prevent Pakistan from dominating the power dynamics in a Taliban-led Afghanistan, making the containment of Islamabad’s influence a central focus of its strategy. Moreover, Iran is wary of any aggressive moves by the Taliban along the Iran-Afghanistan border that could embolden Sunni extremist groups within Iran, posing a threat to the country’s security and stability.

Tehran’s engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan is significantly influenced by economic considerations. With Afghanistan’s foreign aid still suspended, the Taliban is keen to develop economic ties with Iran to sustain its economy. Currently, about one-third of Afghanistan’s total imports are sourced from Iran, making the economic relationship between the two neighbors crucial. Tehran has taken proactive measures to bolster bilateral trade and commerce, such as hosting the Iran-Afghanistan Joint Economic Committee meeting in November 2023. This meeting was notable as it was the first since the Taliban regained power, and it was attended by the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mullah Abdul GhaniBaradar. The meeting resulted in the decision to create working groups to identify obstacles hindering economic cooperation between the two countries. On February 24, 2024, a technical delegation from Afghanistan visited Iran to evaluate the facilities of the Chabahar Free Trade Zone, a key area that could accommodate Afghan exports. Such visits not only foster economic ties but also help in improving political relations between the two nations. Tehran’s interest in using Afghanistan as a transit route for Iranian energy and other exports aligns with India’s vision of Afghanistan as a gateway to Central Asia. In a recent meeting in Kabul, Indian diplomat J.P. Singh discussed with the Taliban’s foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi the potential for enhancing economic cooperation and initiating bilateral transit using Iran’s Chabahar Port, commonly known as the “Golden Gate” to landlocked Afghanistan. These developments indicate a growing interdependence among Iran, Afghanistan, and India, driven by economic and strategic interests.

The Helmand River dispute between Iran and Afghanistan is a complex and potentially volatile issue rooted in the shared dependence on the river for water, agriculture, and livelihood amidst increasing scarcity. The Helmand River’s origin in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains and its flow into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province creates a vital connection for both nations. Afghanistan’s construction of a dam on the river for irrigation and power generation has heightened tensions, prompting violent clashes between the two sides. Despite these disputes, mutual cooperation would be beneficial for both nations as they seek to manage their water resources sustainably and avoid further conflict.Iran’s hosting of anti-Taliban Afghan opposition leaders and significant numbers of Afghan refugees grants it tactical leverage against the Taliban, potentially complicating Iran-Afghan relations. In January 2022, Tehran hosted a meeting between the Taliban and Afghan opposition figures, indicating a willingness to engage with both sides. The Taliban’s focus on diplomatic acceptance has likely prevented open criticism of Iran’s support for Afghan opposition leaders. This complex relationship between Iran and Afghanistan is further complicated by Iran’s recruitment of Afghan Shi’a Hazara fighters for proxy conflicts in Syria through the Fatemiyoun Division. This recruitment strategy serves Iran’s regional interests, but its impact within Afghanistan remains a source of concern for regional stability.Iran’s political influence in Afghanistan is less pronounced compared to other countries in the region, such as Syria and Iraq. However, the possibility of deploying the Fatemiyoun brigade within Afghanistan to aid the Taliban against ISKP could strengthen ties between Iran and the Taliban while advancing Iran’s strategic interests. Nevertheless, such an intervention could provoke significant political and security repercussions in the region and draw reactions from neighboring powers. The Helmand River dispute, coupled with the broader geopolitical dynamics, poses challenges to maintaining peace and stability in the region.

          The rapprochement between Revolutionary Iran and the fundamentalist Taliban is a significant development that should not be underestimated. Despite their divergent ideological foundations, strategic cultures, and geopolitical attitudes, both sides are cautiously working towards reconciliation. Iran’s approach to the Taliban seems to be driven by a pragmatic view that the new Taliban regime may be more reformed and less harmful than its previous iteration. This cautious engagement aims to foster regional stability, with both sides seeking avenues to build on their newfound rapport. However, regular communication and cooperation are essential to navigate potential misperceptions and hurdles.It is too early to predict the future trajectory of Iranian-Afghan relations, as the region remains volatile and prone to geopolitical rivalries and jihadist terrorism. The common threat posed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) could foster closer intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. Yet, ongoing border skirmishes and disputes over water-sharing continue to test the depth of Iran-Taliban ties.Domestically, Iran’s conservative and reformist factions hold differing views on long-term engagement with the Taliban. Nonetheless, the Iranian regime appears to prioritize broader geopolitical objectives over certain negative aspects of its relationship with Afghanistan. As a result, engaging with the Taliban has become a pragmatic necessity for Iran to advance its interests and maintain stability in the region.

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