On October 23, the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) imposed sanctions on two Iranian Quds Force officers for providing financial and military support to the Taliban. The TFTC’s decision, which was reached by the United States and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, labelled Iran as complicit in the wave of terrorist attacks launched by the Taliban in recent months. In a statement that followed the TFTC’s ruling, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin described Iran’s relationship with the Taliban as “yet another example of Tehran’s blatant regional meddling and support for terrorism.”
Mnuchin’s statement reflected the consensus within the Trump administration about Iran’s Taliban links. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of supporting Taliban militants, and urged Tehran to suspend this relationship as a precondition for normalized diplomatic ties with the United States. Although U.S. officials have correctly drawn attention to the destabilizing consequences of this policy, there is inadequate evidence for claims that Iran wants to harm the security of the United States by creating a state of chaotic instability in Afghanistan.
The Iranian government’s restrained support for the Afghan Taliban is logical, as Tehran views the Taliban’s belligerent conduct as a threat to Iran’s national security. This threat perception has been heightened by a recent wave of terrorist attacks near the Iran-Afghanistan border. On November 2, a clash between rival Taliban factions in western Afghanistan’s Herat province led to 30 fatalities. This attack was followed on November 7, by a Taliban-orchestrated strike on two military checkpoints in Farah province, which resulted in the deaths of seven Afghan police officers.
The frequency of these border clashes is a concern for Iranian policymakers, as instability in Afghanistan has adversely impacted Iran’s economic wellbeing and national security. Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University and an expert at the Valdai Discussion Club, told The Diplomat that Iranian authorities have struggled to contain the wave of Afghan refugees crossing the Iran-Afghanistan border. This refugee wave, combined with the lingering memories of the 1998 murder of 10 Iranian diplomats during the Taliban-orchestrated Mazar-i-Sharif siege, has caused Tehran to view a minimum degree of stability in Afghanistan as vital for Iran’s national security.
These concerns have caused Iran to create a state of managed instability in Afghanistan, where it supports the Taliban enough to complicate U.S. military objectives in Afghanistan, but refrains from backing the organization’s unbridled expansion. According to Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, Iran’s support for the Taliban is an effective way of retaliating against the United States for withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, as it allows Tehran to undermine U.S. interests while clinging to a façade of plausible deniability.
This controlled instability strategy closely mirrors Iran’s actions in Yemen. While the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has emphatically denied providing support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the Shiite organization has used Iranian financial and military assistance to stymie the progress of the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in Yemen. As Iran lacks the financial resources to participate in Yemen’s reconstruction, it has not engaged in a Syria-style intervention on the behalf of the Houthis, but has still acted as an effective spoiler of U.S. interests in Yemen.
While Iran’s spoiler role in Afghanistan has become increasingly pronounced in recent months, as Tehran has helped the Taliban consolidate its authority in the western regions of Farah province, there are signs that Iran could ultimately detach itself from the Taliban’s belligerent activities. Iran has consistently participated in the Moscow-format peace talks on Afghanistan and in Shanghai Cooperation Organization anti-ISIS initiatives to appear like a responsible stakeholder that advocates peace in Afghanistan.
In support of this end, Azizi described Iran’s strategy of engaging with moderate Taliban members as resembling Russian and U.S. attempts to end the war in Afghanistan. The Iranian government’s ostensible desire to stabilize Afghanistan mirrors its active diplomatic involvement in the Astana talks on Syria’s future, and has helped Tehran ease tensions with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in recent weeks.
These positive signs have been capitalized upon by U.S. officials, who are pursuing a two-pronged strategy of enticing Iran to act constructively in Afghanistan and punishing Tehran’s destabilizing activities. A U.S. Department of State official who handles Iran-related press matters told The Diplomat that the United States is actively encouraging Iran to support the legitimate Afghan government and convince the Taliban to enter peace talks with Kabul. Engagement with Iran on Afghanistan’s security is important for U.S. interests, the official said, due to “Iran’s deep cultural connections with Shiite Muslims in western and central Afghanistan” and Iran’s status as the “number one source of imports into Afghanistan and number three market for Afghan exports.”
Although the Iranian government’s continued apathy toward Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiite community and the detrimental consequences of Iran’s deportations of Afghan refugees highlight the limits of constructive engagement with Tehran over Afghanistan, these actions should be viewed in the broader context of Iran’s strategic ambitions. As U.S.-Iran tensions continue to escalate in the coming months, the war in Afghanistan could serve as both a flashpoint of confrontation between Washington and Tehran, and as a reminder of the constraints that restrict Iran’s ability to undermine U.S. interests in South Asia.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to the Washington Post and the National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2.