On May 21, a U.S. drone strike killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour when he crossed over into Pakistan from Iran. According to a Dawn newspaper report, documents found near the body of a man believed to be Mullah Mansour “named him as Muhammad Wali, and showed he had left for Iran on March 28 and returned the day he was killed.”
Iran categorically denied these reports. However, it is no longer a secret that in the last decade, Shiite Iran has established ties with the Taliban, a Sunni militant group.
In June 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that Tehran had increased its supply of funding and arms to the Taliban, and was even recruiting and training their fighters. In May 2015, a Taliban delegation led by Mohammad Tayyab Agha, a close ally of Mullah Omar who had refused to swear allegiance to Mullah Mansour, allegedly visited Iran and held talks with Iranian leaders. The ties date back even further: according to unconfirmed reports, the Taliban opened an office in the Iranian city of Zehedan in 2012. Well before that, in 2007, Afghan border police had confiscated shipment of landmines believed to be from Iran meant for Taliban.
There are number of reasons for the covert Iranian support to Taliban. First, Iran is afraid of the presence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Af-Pak region. Presently, the extent of the Islamic State’s presence in the “Khorasan,” a historical name of the region lying northeast of Iran which comprises modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and part of India, remains unclear. But there are strong signals that ISIS is trying to expand in Afghanistan. Already, disenchanted elements in the ranks of the Taliban have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Iran does not want a live border on both its western and eastern fronts. At the same time, the Taliban is also wary of the ISIS presence in Afghanistan, as it is divesting the Taliban of funding and recruits.
A second reason for the Iran-Taliban connection relates to the U.S. presence in the region. This can be looked at from two exactly opposite theories. One can look at Iranian covert support to Taliban as a move to counter the U.S. influence in the region. Iran has always been uncomfortable with the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, near its borders. Before the conclusion of the historic nuclear agreement with P5+1 nations in 2015, there were genuine concerns in Iran of possible attacks on its nuclear facilities from neighboring Afghanistan. However, going by this explanation, it was expected that Iranian support for the Taliban would wane after the nuclear agreement came into existence, which was not the case.
That led to the second theory: Although Iran has staunchly opposed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan publicly, privately it feels U.S. forces in Afghanistan are necessary to maintain order in that country. A dysfunctional, lawless, and chaotic Afghanistan is not in Iran’s interests. Limited support to the Taliban makes sure the continued presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Third, Iran is hedging its bets on the uncertain future unfolding in Afghanistan. It has consistently taken a position that it wants to see an ethnically-inclusive government. On the one hand, Iran is investing in Afghan infrastructure, funding political organizations and candidates as well as media houses. On the other hand, Iran is making provision for the possible future Taliban involvement in the national government. Iran wants a Tehran-friendly government in Kabul and it is attempting to earn some leverage for the future.
Fourth, Iran is increasingly feeling marginalized as other stakeholders in the region like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and China have all opened clandestine channels of communication with the Taliban. With the exception of China, Iran’s relations with rest of these countries have been historically frosty. Iran does not want to lose out in the event of the re-emergence of the Taliban. At the same time, the Taliban is also circumspect about its over-reliance on Pakistan. It wants to come out of the shadow of Pakistan and therefore is increasingly looking at Iran.
A fifth reason can be attributed to the future geoeconomic competition between Iran and Pakistan. Recently, India signed the Chabahar port agreement with Iran, which is touted as India’s gateway to Central Asia and Russia and also an important component of the International North-South Trade Corridor. About 100 kilometers east of Chabahar, China is building Gwadar port, which is part of $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Due to unrest in Balochistan province of Pakistan, Gwadar may not be a preferred option compared to Chabahar, which will economically help Iran. Given the “not-so-friendly” relationship between Iran and Pakistan, Iran might hope to control activities in Balochistan by supporting some factions of the Taliban. This will help Iran to make sure that Chabahar remains safe option as compared to Gwadar.
What does this mean for India?
During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, Iran was known for its strong anti-Taliban stance. It was part of the Northern Alliance along with India and Russia. When nine Iranian diplomats were killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1998, Iran amassed its military along the Iran-Afghan border with the intention of going to the war. Subsequently, Iran supported the United States to overthrow the Taliban regime and helped Afghanistan constructively to form a post-Taliban government. During this period, Tehran did not play the “good Taliban, bad Taliban” game and there was a clear convergence of interests between India and Iran vis-à-vis the Taliban.
The situation no longer remains the same. However, India can look at it as an opportunity. As mentioned earlier, all the stakeholders in the region have opened secret channels of communication with the Taliban. India is the only major player in the region who does not talk directly with the Taliban. Nevertheless, India can work closely with its “friend” Iran in this regard to further its own national interests. The Taliban is no longer a monolithic and strong organization it once used to be. Of late there have been a lot of cracks in the organization and India, along with Iran, can make use these cracks to further weaken it.
Iranian support to the Taliban is likely to be a short-term strategy as extended support could backfire in the future. A stronger Taliban next door means the return of the old black days — an unstable Afghanistan, refugee outflows, threats to the Iranian investments in the country, and Sunni Pashtun dominance at the cost of the Shia minority. It also poses a grave threat to Chabahar port and investments in the adjoining area, which are vital for Iran’s economic revival. However, limited patronage to the Taliban will let Iran have an influence in the current and future dispensations in Kabul. Hopefully Iran will use this influence to help make Afghanistan a peaceful, inclusive and democratic nation, which is in the interest of both India and Iran.
Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak is a Researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, India. He also works as a Researcher at the South Asia Desk for Wikistrat. The views expressed here are his own.