Iran’s Ambiguous Role in the Afghan Peace Process

On July 8, Iran hosted talks between delegations from the Afghan government and the Taliban. This effort provided a new venue for Afghan negotiators to engage one another as the Taliban advance continued and the U.S.-backed talks in Doha stalled. The Iranian position toward the Afghan war has been complex and often ambiguous. While the Iranian government is now advocating peace, its geopolitical interests in Afghanistan are much broader.

For the last 25 years, Iranian policy toward Afghanistan has been driven by a dual mandate. Iran has aimed to prevent the rise of Sunni fundamentalism while also contesting American power in the Middle East.

As a Shiite-majority nation, Iranian disdain for Sunni fundamentalism is palpable. Fundamentalist Sunni groups like the Taliban often assert that Shiites are not true Muslims and wage vicious attacks against them. In the last few decades, Iran has branded itself the “protector of Shiites” in the Middle East. At first, this made Iran an adversary of the Taliban. In 1998, Iran nearly declared war against the Taliban after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, in which the Taliban killed many Shiites and 11 Iranian citizens. After the September 11th attacks, Iran, in alignment with American policy, supported the Northern Alliance campaign against the Taliban.

However, Iranian fear of American power has made it an inconsistent ally of America and the Afghan government. Since the initial defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, Iran has played a more nuanced role in Afghanistan, trying to cozy up with Afghan elites while also providing occasional support to the Taliban. Iranian officials fear that if America enjoys too much success in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran might become the next target of American regime change efforts. The numerous American military bases surrounding Iran and frequent calls for regime change in the American media exacerbate these anxieties. While Iran is glad to see the American presence in Afghanistan end, its policy toward Afghanistan must now chart a new course that consists of more than mere anti-Americanism.

Inside Iran, public opinion is divided regarding the ideal policy toward Afghanistan. The reformists have been hawkish regarding Afghanistan, disgusted by the Taliban’s religious fundamentalism and their recent outrageous targeted attacks against Shiite Hazaras. Etemad, a prominent reformist newspaper, recently warned of “unpleasant consequences if extremist and violent movements like the Taliban come to power.”

Iran’s hardliners have the upper hand politically and support a more conciliatory approach to the Taliban. This June, Kayhan, a paper funded by the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, remarked that “The Taliban today is different from the Taliban that used to behead people.” Statements like these are not expressions of political solidarity. While Iran and the Taliban are united in their anti-Americanism, the Taliban has much closer ties to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rivals. Instead, Iranian hardliners make these statements to signal Iran’s belief in the possibility of a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Lately, Iranian officials have been stressing their hopes for peace. Rasoul Mousavi, leader of West Asia policy in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, has stated that: “Opportunities pass like clouds. The opportunity of peace must be taken today, not tomorrow, as it might be late.” Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, the Iranian special representative to Afghanistan, recently met with the Afghan foreign minister to assure him of Iran’s commitment to peace. A cursory look at The Tehran Times, an Iranian newspaper with close ties to the foreign ministry, reveals an array of headlines promoting “talks” and “peace,” a tact that is strikingly similar to American rhetoric on Afghanistan.

But Iranian policy toward Afghanistan is more interested in stability than peace. Hostilities around Herat are ongoing, and Iran is concerned that the violence could spill into its territory. This July, the Taliban captured many districts in Herat province that are adjacent to Iran’s eastern border. They have also captured the Islam Qala border crossing that leads into Iran.

Fighting in Afghanistan also poses a threat to the Iranian economy, a chief concern for incoming President Ebrahim Raisi, who made economic renewal a centerpiece of his campaign. Trade between Iran and Afghanistan totals over $3 billion annually. Fighting also renders inoperable the newly-inaugurated Khaf-Herat railroad that links Iran and Afghanistan —and which is part of the much larger East-West Railway Corridor project—.

Continued fighting in Afghanistan is also guaranteed to bring more refugees to Iran, which will place a significant economic burden on the country and exacerbate Iran’s already troublesome surge of COVID-19 cases. Iran is already home to nearly a million registered refugees and hundreds of thousands more who are undocumented. Incoming Iranian President Raisi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a recent telephone conversation, made cooperating to manage the influx of Afghan refugees into their countries one of their primary goals.

The Iranian desire for stability in Afghanistan has led it to hedge its bets on the Taliban. If the Taliban can secure a decisive victory, allowing commerce to proceed and the flow of refugees to slow, the Iranian government will be glad to align with them. If the Taliban cannot win decisively, Iran is likely to promote a power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan that allows it to forego the repercussions of a protracted Afghan civil war.

To maintain a flexible policy, the Iranian government has maintained ties with the Afghan government while also pursuing its own policy, including backing an anti-Taliban Shiite militia called Hashd al-Shi’i. Much like Afghanistan’s other neighbors, Iran has not decided whether Taliban rule or a political settlement is more in line with its national interests. The most crucial factors shaping Iran’s determination will be the success of the Taliban on the battlefield and the vulnerability Iran feels to the threats posed by Sunni fundamentalism and American regime change.

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