What is drawing Iran and Taliban closer?

The Taliban has never been happy about Iran’s cultural influence in Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they rejected any cultural links between Iran and Afghanistan and ignored Iran’s interests, writes Zahid Aria for South Asia Monitor
Zahid Aria Jan 20, 2020
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

On November 27, 2019 Taliban Politburo chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar visited Tehran and met Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. They discussed Tehran's readiness to facilitate the intra-Afghan dialogue. A Twitter statement of Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman in Doha, said Taliban delegations and Zarif discussed a peaceful solution to the Afghanistan issue and Afghan migrants’ problems in Iran. This was not the first visit by Taliban leaders to meet Iranian officials.

When US President Donald Trump declared peace talks between the US and Taliban "dead" and suspended negotiations after a deadly Taliban attack in Kabul, killing 12 civilians and an American soldier, the Taliban began their regional visits, to China, Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan. In late September 2019, Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, Taliban Politburo deputy, and four colleagues travelled to Tehran and met Iranian Foreign Ministry officials.

The question then arises; are relations between the Taliban and Iran a strategic partnership or strategic tool? Historically and ideologically, Iran and the Taliban are different. Ideologically, Taliban are Sunni extremists whereas Iran is a Shia majority Muslim country, followers of Shia Jaffari faith. Apart from their sectarian and ideological differences, Iran and the Taliban have a bitter history of geopolitical rivalry. When the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, they were recognized by Iran Iran’s regional rivals like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud. In August 1998, Taliban captured the city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed 10 Iranian diplomats as well as one Iranian correspondent. Following this incident, Iran deployed thousands of troops on the border between the two countries, but avoided any direct intrusion into Afghanistan.

With the changing political situation in Afghanistan and the region, Iranians likewise changed the direction of their foreign policy and interests and commenced supporting Taliban financially, provided weapons, equipment and health facilities to their fighters on Iranian soil. Afghan officials in west Afghanistan claim that the Taliban in the country’s western provinces are backed by Iran.

So what drives Iran to become a Taliban friend? Has Iran forgotten the Mazar-e- Sharif incident and forgiven the Taliban? Has Iran shifted her strategy from hostile to friendly relations toward the Taliban because of vested interests?

There are common grounds that bring Iran and the Taliban closer: First, the presence of American forces in Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, America invaded Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban regime and put an end to their autocratic government in Kabul. Since then, Taliban resurfaced and continued fighting against international military forces, as a result of flawed US strategies. Chronologically, US-Iran rivalries go back to Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, overthrow of the Shah’s regime and Iranian revolutionaries taking US embassy diplomats hostage in Tehran.

This was not the only bone of contention between the US and Iran. Iran’s attempts to build a nuclear bomb, presence of Sepah Quds (Quds Army) Lashkar Fatemyioun (Fatemiyoun Division) in West Asia and Iran’s support to different Shiite militant groups like Hezbullah of Lebanon (a Shiite Lebanon-based militant group), al–Hashd-ash-Shabi (People’s Mobilization Unit) in Iraq and Houthi Shia militant group in war-ravaged Yemen, are other major factors in the fraught US-Iran relationship. Given the current political developments in the region, and Afghanistan in particular, Iran propping up the Taliban is intended to counter the US influence in the region.

Second, the presence of Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan:

In 2015, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of the Levant announced their presence in eastern Afghanistan as the ISKP. This notional geographic area encompasses parts of Iran, China, Central Asia, Pakistan, the Indian Sub-continent and parts of Southeast Asia. Since the emergence of ISKP, the Taliban announced their opposition and declared jihad against them while, at the same time, Shiite militants backed by Iran were fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, to counter the threat of ISKP, Iranians changed their policy of anti-Talibanism on their eastern border and began collaboration with them. 

Third, the alarming level of water scarcity and drought is a big concern for both Iran and Afghanistan. Each side suffers from acute droughts due to climate change and lack of proper water management. The Helmand River that originates from the Baba and Hindukush mountains of Afghanistan flows to the east of Iran’s province of Sistan and Balochistan. Owing to diminishing level of snow and rain in the Hindukush and Baba mountains and construction of dams on the Helmand River, the water flow has been considerably reduced towards Iran.

In 1973, Iran and Afghanistan had signed an agreement in which Afghanistan accepted the flow of water into Iran at 22 cubic meters of water per second with an option for Iran to purchase an additional four cubic meters of water. In return, Iran agreed to allow Afghanistan’s traders to use Bandar-Abbas and Chabahar ports without any precondition, but the agreement was neither ratified nor implemented owing to political unrest in both countries, particularly in Afghanistan. With Indian financial support, Afghanistan recently completed building the Salma Dam in Herat province and began construction of the Kamal Khan dam in the Nimroz province, to which Iran is strictly opposed. Iran’s reason for supporting the Taliban in the western provinces is to prevent the construction of more dams. The resultant instability will help Iran take advantage of the Helmand River flows unsystematically, without any agreement.

Consequently, the Afghanistan problem requires a political solution, because history has proven that no side is able to eliminate the opponent totally and emerge as the final victor. Also, Iran sees the Taliban as a player in the future Afghan political arena. Zarif said, "I think it would be impossible to have future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban". Therefore, Iran wants to cultivate relations with the Taliban before any peace agreement is struck between the Taliban, the US and Afghan government.

However, relations between Iran and the Taliban are not a strategic partnership; they are a strategic tool. Because of huge, irreconcilable, ideological and historical differences between them, this matrimonial alliance of convenience is at best a strategic tool, for mutual interest. Neither is Taliban a reliable friend for Iran due to their strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE - all Iran’s regional rivals, nor is Iran a reliable friend for Taliban because of their ideological differences and their links with Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has never been happy about Iran’s cultural influence in Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they rejected any cultural links between Iran and Afghanistan and ignored Iran’s interests. In case any political settlement occurs in Afghanistan, neither Iran nor the Taliban will look at each other as strategic partners. Instead, their collaboration would revolve around seasonal proportionality of interests in a time-serving manner to score their own objectives.

(The writer is a Ph.D. candidate at Department of Defence and National Security Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh)

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