For the past few years, Iran-Taliban relations have been very strong. When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly, although with carefully crafted words, welcomed the new reality. Iran was one of just a handful of countries that kept its embassy open when the Taliban took over in Kabul, demonstrating Iran’s great expectations.
Nevertheless, the Taliban’s recent behavior, particularly the group’s unprofessionalism and lack of capacity to actually govern and address the severe socioeconomic crisis in Afghanistan, might cast shadow over its relations with Tehran. The alarmed reaction of the international community to the Taliban’s recent political decisions, in addition to the mounting terrorist attacks in the country, have also raised questions about the Taliban government’s ability to provide security for the people of Afghanistan or guarantee it to the country’s neighbors.
Tehran is arguably disappointed with the Taliban. As such, Iran may aim to distance itself from the powers-that-be in Kabul given the Taliban’s failure to address a range of security and social issues.
The Taliban government has failed to adequately provide and maintain order in Afghanistan, leading to difficulties in sustaining neighborly relations with Iran. Over the course of the Taliban’s present rule in Afghanistan, in addition to several minor border clashes between Taliban border forces and Iranian border guards, there have been three major border conflicts between two sides.
The first serious incident occurred in December 2021 in Shangalak village, in Iran’s Hirmand county. Farmers who were trying to pass the village’s walls while still being within Iran’s territory were mistakenly targeted by Taliban border forces. Soon after this clash, Iran’s foreign affairs ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, in a delicately worded statement said that “misunderstanding between border residents” had caused the fighting. Iranian media reported that the insufficiently skilled Taliban border forces seemed to be the major contributor to such random incidents, since “the Taliban border guards were unfamiliar with the complexities of the porous Iran-Afghanistan borders.”
A second incident occurred in April 2022. Iran and the Taliban border forces skirmished in Herat’s Qala district after which Iran closed its border post. Iran International, citing social media videos, reported that Iran had deployed military vehicles on its border after the clash took place. Both sides blamed each other for starting the fight. According to the Iranians “fighting began when Taliban forces … tried to raise their own flag. … With a wrong understanding of the borderline, Taliban forces imagine the wall is the border between Iran and Afghanistan. ”
A third incident took place in July 2022. After a border shooting in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, one Afghan soldier died and one was wounded. The same scenario repeated itself as the Taliban forces tried to raise their flag on Iranian territory. IRGC affiliated news agencies mostly avoided using belligerent language and naming the Taliban as responsible, whereas some news agencies did the opposite. An Iranian MP, Shahriar Heydari, in his interview with Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) said that “in case they repeated such violations they should be dealt with decisive action by our military and border guards.”
The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), declaring it would “punish Iran for being a ‘ vanguard’ of Shias” and other minority groups, including the Hazaras, was a major motivating factor for Iran to bet on the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, a substantial increase in the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, in addition to the aforementioned border incidents, might impact Iranian faith in the Taliban’s ability to manage the ISKP threat. Since August 2021, according to SITE Intelligence Group, different terrorist groups in Afghanistan carried out at least 224 attacks. In the second quarter of 2022, ISKP remained the most active terrorist organization in Afghanistan with 80 attacks it claimed during that period. T he worsening security condition increased the vulnerability of minorities, including Hazaras, Shias, and Sufis, in some provinces. In April 2022, for example, a series of blasts in Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, and Kunduz appeared to target these minority communities specifically.
Recent controversial social measures enacted by the Taliban government have been met by worldwide condemnation. For many, including Iran, these moves degrade the Taliban’s perceived reliability as a partner in Afghanistan. On December 24, 2022, in addition to banning women from going to universities, an order introduced by the Taliban’s higher education ministry, women were also banned from working for non-governmental organizations. These measures were strongly condemned by the international community, including the Islamic world. Such a short-sighted policy might worsen the security situation, as well as endanger the fragile peace. This, in turn, might further shift Iran’s attitude toward the Taliban.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed concerns about the recent developments in Afghanistan on January 19, 2023. According to media reports, he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu both declared that “there is no religious justification for the ban on women’s access to education.” Within Afghanistan, most prominent leaders of various factions, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also swiftly criticized the Taliban’s decision to ban women entirely from education.
Similarly, concern over the Taliban’s governance made it into the joint statement issued during Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing in February 2023. In the statement issued by Raisi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the two “urged the Afghan governing body to form an inclusive government with the meaningful participation of all ethnic and political groups and eliminate discrimination against women, minorities and religions.”
Is Iran Distancing Itself From the Taliban?
Recent developments related to Tehran’s relationship with Ahmad Massoud – the leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF) – have raised questions as to whether Iran is distancing itself from the Taliban in favor of closer ties to the NRF.
For the time being, Iran is maintaining some level of cooperation with Ahmad Massoud. In July last year, the special envoy of the Iranian president to Afghanistan, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, praised Massoud and said that “he represents an inextricable part of Afghan society.” With these remarks, Qumi seemed to deflect Taliban allegations that Massoud was working for U.S. interests.
Prior to this, in January 2022, Tehran organized a meeting with Massoud and the Taliban government’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, on Iranian soil, after which Muttaqi posted a video on Twitter saying “We met commander Ismail Khan and Ahmad Massoud, and other Afghans in Iran, and assured them that anyone can come to Afghanistan and live without any concerns.” Showing such a bold political gesture to the parties of the conflict is rather substantial move by Tehran.
The participation of Iran’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Mohammad Taghi Saberi, along with several Iranian academics, in the 10th Herat Security Dialogue, held in late November 2022 in Dushanbe, appeared to be an important event. The keynote speaker was Massoud. One prominent Iranian researcher, Mohammad Ali Bahmanighajar, who also attended the event argued that “the rule of the Taliban has not led to the establishment of peace and stable government” in Afghanistan. This suggests there may be at least some Iranian scholars critical of the Taliban government due to its failure to tackle Afghanistan’s major issues.
Keeping Massoud on its radar appears to be in line with Tehran’s interests for a couple of reasons. First, Iran has an interest in maintaining or even strengthening its influence over the NRF since there were mounting calls from some in the international community to support the group outright, arguing it could be the West’s bulwark in Afghanistan. Tehran therefore seems to be more vigilant about Massoud and other leading members of the NRF, including Amrullah Saleh, and the NRF’s head of foreign relations, Ali Nazary, being active in fundraising activity through interviews and social media propaganda.
Second, the NRF mainly consists of several ethnic groups in Afghanistan such as Hazaras, Tajiks, Shiites, and other Persian-speaking populations. Thereby, from Tehran’s perspective, it should continue to support these groups due to its historical connections as well as cultural, linguistic, and religious closeness to these minority groups. That will help to avoid a widespread backlash at home for its links with the Taliban, as some Iranians think there is too much Iranian blood already on Taliban hands. Apart from that, based on remarks made by some high level officials, ranging from Iran’s supreme leader to the country’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Tehran is clearly interested in dealing with all parties in Afghanistan, both the Taliban government and its opponents, in order to prevent either side from monopolizing power.
The Economic Reality
The search for new economic opportunities increases the need, on the part of Tehran, to have a strong partner in Afghanistan.
For the last few years, the Iranian economy has been greatly impacted by U.S. sanctions. The country has long sought new economic opportunities beyond its eastern borders. Iran’s balanced support to the Taliban could be translated not only into its economic interests in Afghanistan, but also, in a broader sense, its relations with China. Considering Afghanistan’s geographic location between China and Iran, it’s very important for Iran to have good relations with Afghanistan for boosting its economy via trade with China, using Afghanistan as a transportation corridor.
In addition, over the last decade Afghanistan has been among the top five export destinations for Iranian goods, yet exports declined 40 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year. However, as the head of the Mashhad Office of the Iran-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce declared, the volume of trade between Iran and Afghanistan has risen by 25 percent as of December 2022. According to vice president of the Iran-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce, Aladdin Mir-Mohammad-Sadeghi, who is very optimistic about the prevalence of trade between two nations, if “the promises made by Taliban officials” were kept, bilateral trade could potentially reach $3 billion. Furthermore, Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, in October 2021, expressed the willingness of his country to invest in the energy, transportation, mining, trade, and health sectors in Afghanistan.
The Iranian response to growing social grievances and a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, coupled with several border clashes, suggest that Tehran’s expectations of the Taliban have not been met. However, disappointment with the Taliban might not prevent Iran from pursuing pragmatic cooperation with the Taliban, considering its cooperation with the movement extends beyond security boundaries and includes challenges ranging from transboundary water issues to migration and drug trafficking.
Furthermore, Tehran’s positive attitude toward Ahmad Masood and effort to maintain some level of connection with the NRF cannot be simplistically interpreted as Iranian readiness to sacrifice its relations with the Taliban. However, based on the factors laid out above, Tehran is likely to lower its exposure to the Taliban, to moderate its expectations.
As Tehran increasingly seeks new economic opportunities on its eastern boundaries, Afghanistan will remain an important partner. As long as the Taliban movement is the most powerful agent in Afghanistan, maintaining pragmatic relationship with the group is a rational decision for Tehran.