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Iran Moves Towards Greater Cooperation With Taliban

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Iran Moves Towards Greater Cooperation With Taliban

Tehran is likely to work with Kabul to conduct cross-border operations against the ISKP, which claimed responsibility for the recent attack in Iran’s Kerman province.

Iran Moves Towards Greater Cooperation With Taliban

People walk towards the grave of the late Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in the city of Kerman about 510 miles (820 kms) southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

On January 3, the Islamic State (IS) group targeted a gathering (and sent a message) at Kerman in Iran to honor the memory of the late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)’s Quds Force Qasem Soleimani, on the occasion of his fourth death anniversary. The attack claimed the lives of over 90 people, with hundreds more injured.

This was the third attack and the deadliest one to be carried out by the IS in Iran since Ebrahim Raisi took office as president. It has triggered calls for the dismissal of  Minister of Interior Ahmad Vahidi.

The victims of the attack were innocent civilians who had simply gathered to pay their respects to the slain commander. They were standing outside the VIP cordon, established by the IRGC. According to one IRGC commander, the suicide bomber was wearing a ballistic vest filled with military-grade high-explosive, stuffed with metal pellets, ball bearings and nails among other metal objects, aimed to inflict greater casualties.

There were two explosions carried out by suicide bombers. No gunfire was reported after the attack.

Iran’s pro-government media blamed Israel and the United States for the attack, even after the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for it and named the two bombers. According to Tehran, the ISKP and its parent organization, the Islamic State, are Washington’s creations, with the sole purpose of destabilizing Iran.

Why Soleimani? And Why Now?

As commander of the Quds Force, Soleimani not only supervised Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war — unifying all Shia militia under the leadership of Iranian officers was his brainchild, but also led offensives in battle and also the diplomatic engagement with Moscow, successfully convincing the later to enter the war. He was the top Iranian commander to personally supervise, and at times lead (according to those who fought with him) a dedicated joint Shia militia/Quds Force campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria between 2011 and 2017.

His offensives against the IS affiliates, including ISKP and other radical Sunni Islamist factions prompted the IS to seek revenge by carrying out attacks inside Iran.

In June 2017, the IS stormed the Iranian parliament and the Khomeini mausoleum and killed 17 locals. In September 2018, it attacked a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, resulting in over 25 casualties. It also took responsibility for a lone wolf-style attack, a stabbing spree in the Mashhad shrine on April 5, 2022, besides mass shootings at the Shiraz shrine on October 26, 2022.

None of these attacks were as symbolic as the recent one in Kerman province, which is Soleimani’s birthplace. The province also borders Iran’s impoverished and restive province of Sistan-Baluchestan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Elevation in Iran-Taliban relations?

The attack inside Tehran is likely to have damaged the credibility (and ambitions) of Vahidi, who was appointed deputy commander of the law enforcement forces by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The string of ISKP attacks has resulted in depleting the trust and support of his peers in government; many of them are calling for his immediate removal. According to one scholar, however, Khamenei’s confidence in Vahidi may force Raisi to refrain from dismissing him.

Meanwhile, Vahidi and others in the government are grappling with a serious problem: the vacuum created by the evacuation of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has resulted in Sunni Islamist elements filling the gap, potentially challenging the Taliban’s grip over power.

The attack in Kerman may force Vahidi to make concrete efforts towards cooperation with the Taliban regime, especially in jointly targeting the ISKP.

This may not be easy as Tehran and the Taliban share a complex relationship. In addition to their sectarian differences, there are unresolved disputes over the  Iran-Afghanistan border and the Helmand Water Treaty. Iran has not formally recognized the Taliban regime and is calling for an “inclusive” Afghan government.

Yet ISKP is a common adversary. Vahidi may explore opportunities for joint intelligence operations. He could also expand/identify greater collaborative mechanisms with the Taliban’s border police forces and the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), as well as engage Afghan interim Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani to permit Iranian forces to target ISKP camps deep inside Afghanistan.

Joint Intelligence and Counterterrorism Cooperation

Vahidi could expand the purview of joint IRGC-GDI cooperation by operating inside Afghanistan. He could move towards Tehran and the Taliban working together in counterterrorism operations.

According to one scholar, inadequate Taliban border police and Kabul’s neglect of Afghanistan’s mountainous hinterlands have resulted in ISKP’s continued dominance of these areas, which have become the staging ground for ISKP attacks against the Taliban. IRGC could also provide technical surveillance to support the Taliban, which continues to employ guerrilla-induced tactical postures in its security apparatus.

Securing Borders

In addition to joint intelligence and counterterrorism operations against the ISKP, Iran and the Taliban could also target smaller Sunni Islamist factions, and IS-affiliated Wahhabi groups, which thrive along Afghanistan’s southern and southeastern borders. These groups pose a grave threat to not just Tehran but also the region. This provides Iran with the justification that its cooperation with the Taliban and the eradication of extremist groups is for the good of regional security.

Iran’s emphasis will be on securing the 950-km-long Iran-Afghan border, which remains unsecured in mountainous areas that are not suited for the deployment of troops. Vahidi’s first priority would be to secure Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, which is less than 100 kilometers from the Afghan border.

It is too early to predict the nature of joint intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation between Tehran and the Taliban or the level of engagement that Vahidi had with his counterparts at the Afghan Ministry of Interior. However, a former IRGC commander confirmed to the authors the existence of intelligence cooperation between the IRGC and the Taliban’s GDI dedicated to counterterrorism in the city of Mashhad.

Predicting Iranian Responses

What were Tehran’s previous responses to ISKP attack inside its territories? The IRGC retaliated using long-range kamikaze drones and ballistic missiles against the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq, following the 2017 parliament and mausoleum attacks, and again in October 2018 after the Ahvaz parade attack. Almost two weeks after the Kerman attack, Iran launched missile strikes into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, claiming to target anti-Iran Sunni insurgent group Jaish al-Adl, in addition to strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Even with ISKP claiming responsibility for the Kerman attacks, Tehran has refrained from targeting ISKP strongholds in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan or northern/northeastern Pakistan. Instead, it has targeted Iranian Baluchi militant group Jaish Ul-Adl in Pakistan, alleging their affiliation to the Israeli spy agency Mossad and role in the Kerman attack.

It appears that Tehran aims to camouflage its ongoing cooperation with Taliban security establishments on cracking down on the ISKP while retaining focus on Gaza, prompting a narrative of blaming Israel or the United States for any future attacks inside Iran.