Iran and the Taliban after the US fiasco in Afghanistan

The return of Taliban rule over Afghanistan will have significant consequences for the region and international politics more broadly. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, Washington’s Afghanistan fiasco is about more than just the victory of the Taliban; it has been touted as confirmation that U.S. policy in the Islamic world is doomed to fail. In its messaging, Tehran has tried to reinforce the idea for its partners and allies that it is the only reliable actor in the Middle East, in opposition to a supposedly unreliable Washington that lacks strategic resolve. These immediate geopolitical and ideological gains, however, could be overshadowed by the potential challenges that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may pose for Iran’s security and regional interests in the long run.

Context

The Iranian authorities have cautiously welcomed Afghanistan’s new rulers, stressing that Tehran will base its policy on the Taliban’s behavior. During a speech on Aug. 28, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “The nature of our relations with governments depends on the nature of their relations with us.” He also did not waste the opportunity to lambast the U.S. for having “acted extremely shamelessly” in Afghanistan.

Iranian officials see the U.S. withdrawal as, in effect, a surrender to the Taliban, a relatively small, ideologically-driven militia group — a victory that they feel vindicates their investment in the “Axis of Resistance” and its regional network of militia groups. It is likely to embolden Iran’s “offensive realist” regional strategy, potentially exacerbating tensions because of the latter’s zero-sum rationale.

Tehran has recently been publicly redefining its relations with the Taliban, an erstwhile arch-enemy. In 1998, Iran and Afghanistan almost went to war after the Taliban murdered a number of Iranian diplomats. But after 9/11 and the Taliban insurgency against the NATO/U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, Iranian-Afghan tensions took a back seat, as Tehran welcomed the headaches the Taliban created for the U.S. military presence there. However, it was only in 2015 that relations between Tehran and the Taliban started to attract international attention. From that point on, Iran gradually made its contacts with the Taliban public, justifying it as an effort to reconcile rival interests in a neighboring country.

Iran’s ideological and material gains

The U.S. Afghanistan debacle has provided two types of benefits for Tehran: one definitive, the other probable.

Definitive gains

According to the Islamic Republic’s narrative, what happened in Afghanistan will lead to further setbacks for the U.S. across the Middle East. President Ebrahim Raisi said the U.S. presence in the region causes insecurity and Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan would be an opportunity for “peace and security.” Gen. Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for coordination affairs, has warned that, “American bases in the Middle East will soon meet the same fate” and has called upon all regional countries and groups to “separate their path from America.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) claimed from its offices in Lebanon and Syria — two countries that Tehran counts among its regional “Axis of Resistance” — that the people, pundits, and politicians there uniformly believe the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has shown that Washington brings insecurity to the region and that resistance is the only effective response. The IRIB report featured the leaders of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi movement repeating the official Iranian line by stressing that those domestic forces in their respective countries whose hopes have been pinned on Washington will end up facing the same fate as their Afghan counterparts. Also, the report emphasized that the “historical defeat” of the U.S. is an harbinger of the end of U.S. presence and influence in West Asia. Similarly, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency has used the situation to attack domestic political rivals, i.e. the reformists, which it refers to as “pro-Western groups,” stating they should concede that the U.S. is not “invincible” given its “humiliating escape” from Afghanistan.

The fact that the U.S. was ultimately unsuccessful against the Taliban has prompted Iranian officials to think that they can defeat the U.S. elsewhere in the region using sponsored militias. In other words, while the Biden administration had announced that they want to impose restrictions on Iran’s regional policies amid ongoing nuclear talks, the White House’s decision on Afghanistan convinced the Islamic Republic that its proxies are the most important form of leverage it has — one it cannot afford to lose.

Probable gains

The victory of the Taliban against the U.S. could also serve as an asset in Tehran’s hands to undermine Washington’s pressure. Iran has been one of the few countries whose embassy still remains open in Kabul. Shargh, a reformist daily, published an interview that emphasizes the opportunities for China, Russia, and Iran in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. China has welcomed the re-emergence of the Taliban, and Iran sees this as an unexpected opportunity to boost its relationship with Beijing, breathing life into the 25-year “strategic accord” the two sides recently signed. In Raisi’s first call since taking office with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he stated that, “Iran is ready to cooperate with China in establishing security, stability, and peace in Afghanistan.” Javan, a daily close to the IRGC, has stressed that “currently [for Iran] the relationship with China and Russia would be more important than nuclear negotiations […]. The West and particularly the U.S. are shocked by the failure in Afghanistan and it is the best opportunity for all three sides [Iran, Russia, and China] to take advantage of it.”

Beyond potential geopolitics gains, the Taliban takeover may also create economic opportunities for Iran. Kayhan, an ultraconservative daily, has already started referring to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as a member of the “Axis of Resistance,” while emphasizing the importance of Iranian fuel exports to the country, which have continued since the Taliban takeover, and noted that they will bolster Tehran’s “resistance economy.” Mohammad-Mehdi Javanmard-Qassab, Iran’s trade adviser in Afghanistan, added, “The Taliban have reduced import tariffs by one-eighth, making it much easier and faster for traders to clear their goods.”

The Islamic Republic has suffered greatly from unilateral U.S. sanctions over the last three years, and Tehran looks for any opportunity to circumvent U.S. pressure. Afghanistan may harbor potential for Iran to export its goods. Aladdin Mir-Mohammad-Sadeghi, vice president of the Iran-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce, expressed hope that if “the promises made by Taliban officials” are kept, bilateral trade could potentially reach $3 billion.

Key components of Iranian strategy

Under these circumstances, the Islamic Republic has begun to rebrand the Taliban as a reformed entity whose rule will be different from what the world witnessed in the 1990s. This rebranding campaign is primarily being pursued by IRGC-affiliated outlets. The aim seems to be to justify and legitimize cooperation with an entity deemed hostile to Iran for almost two decades, especially among the Iranian public. The same outlets — along with senior Iranian officials — are also exploiting the Afghanistan debacle for propaganda purposes, as a sign of U.S. decline and Washington’s unreliability, while concomitantly emphasizing Tehran’s status as a reliable power in the Middle East to its state and non-state allies.

At the same time, Iran, which is already home to some 2.5 million Afghans, and whose dire domestic economic situation means it cannot afford a new wave of Afghan refugees, may use the Afghan exodus to blackmail Europe, where most of those refugees would want to end up. This comes amid discussions that coordination and cooperation with Tehran would be indispensable to avoiding a new major refugee wave into Europe. Tehran may use this as an opportunity to try softening Europe’s stance in areas like the nuclear talks.

Vindicated by the U.S. defeat at the hands of the “Islamic resistance,” Iran will also more confidently pursue its offensive “Axis of Resistance” policies. Ali-Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to the supreme leader in international affairs, has said that the Iran-led and -centered “Axis of Resistance” includes “Yemen, Tehran, Baghdad, Al-Bukamal, Damascus, Beirut, Gaza,” adding that “Afghanistan is also part of this axis.” In fact, Iranian authorities see the “Axis of Resistance” as their most important asset against the U.S. and hope that Afghanistan will expand their sphere of power projection.

Possible risks

The real and potential opportunities Iran sees in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the consolidation of Taliban rule could also involve serious challenges for Iran. First of all, the Taliban’s approach to local Shiites will have a significant impact on Tehran-Kabul relations. During their reign in the 1990s, Taliban were known for, among other things, their strong anti-Shi’a ideology, reflected in systematic harassment, torture, and killing of the Shi’a Hazara minority. For now, publicly Iran still largely maintains the myth of a reformed Taliban that will respect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. In fact, in recent weeks the Taliban have tried to reassure Tehran about this issue, including by allowing the Shi’a to hold Ashura mourning rituals in Afghanistan. However, it is unclear whether the Taliban will continue to do so after consolidating their rule. Crucially, even if Taliban leaders are willing to pursue a more pragmatic policy in this regard, there is no guarantee that the group’s more radical elements, or even ordinary rank and file, will obey. This may lead to bilateral tensions or even conflict should Afghan Shi’as be killed. Such a scenario would put Iran between a rock and a hard place: If it decides to intervene militarily in Afghanistan, it might be caught in the same quagmire that engulfed the United States and the Soviet Union before it. However, sitting idly by while the Taliban suppress Afghan Shi’as would undermine Iran’s credibility as a protector of the Shi’a sect.

Apart from the confessional factor, the Taliban’s highly ethnocentric and monopolistic approach to power is another challenge for Iran. This was reflected in the list of Taliban cabinet ministers announced on Sept. 7. According to the list, the next government of Afghanistan will be completely dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. In addition, even among the Taliban leaders, figures close to Pakistan have a majority in the cabinet. This is in stark contrast to Iran’s desire for a more inclusive government, in which at least those Taliban factions closer to Tehran – if not other ethnic or confessional factions – would be represented. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), took to Twitter to express Tehran’s dissatisfaction with the composition of the Taliban government. Iran may feel it has already lost the battle for influence in Afghanistan to Pakistan. Excessive Pakistani influence could threaten Iran’s interests in some important areas, including at the port of Chabahar, which was supposed to connect India to Central Asia via Afghanistan and was seen as a rival to the Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Moreover, Pakistan is not the only state redefining its role in Afghanistan’s geopolitical theater. Having hosted the Taliban’s political bureau for years while playing the key role in facilitating U.S.-Taliban diplomacy, Qatar is another actor whose role has already become indispensable. Although, unlike most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, Doha has generally had favorable relations with Tehran in recent years, the two countries do not see eye-to-eye on a range of important regional issues, including the Syrian crisis. As such, Qatar’s growing influence in Afghanistan could provide it with leverage to gain concessions from Iran in Arab world affairs. Qatar’s close ally Turkey could also use the situation to its advantage. Turkey’s willingness to play a more active role in Afghanistan, including in securing the Kabul International Airport, as well as economic cooperation with the new regime, could put Iran in a difficult position. An increased Turkish presence in Afghanistan, along with Ankara’s recently solidified foothold in the South Caucasus, could create a situation in which Iran finds itself virtually strategically encircled by its regional rival.

Finally, Iran will once again face a serious threat on its eastern frontier if the Taliban fail to establish stability and security in Afghanistan and deter extremist and terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. In fact, it is not yet clear whether the Taliban have actually severed ties with al-Qaeda’s global terror network. Besides, the Afghan offshoot of ISIS, known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), could take advantage of ongoing instability and potentially become a serious threat to the region. As Afghanistan’s immediate neighbor, Iran stands to face the most pressing security challenges from a potential new wave of terrorism emanating from the country.

Benefits and challenges

The Biden administration’s sudden decision to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has provided a mixed bag of probable and uncertain benefits for the Islamic Republic, as well as a number of potential challenges. First and foremost, Tehran’s reading that the U.S. was bested by a militia group has convinced it that its policy of supporting Islamist militias and movements is the best way to restrain and defeat Washington in the Middle East. It is as yet unclear how far Iran’s efforts to rebrand the Taliban domestically as a reformed group will turn from a narrative into a reality, just as it is too early to predict how Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will act.

In sum, Tehran hopes to benefit from the Taliban takeover in geopolitical and economic terms. The new geopolitical landscape, Iran hopes, will provide it with a chance to enhance its relations with China and Russia by presenting itself as the Middle East’s indispensable power. Iranian officials have emphasized their “Look East” foreign-policy orientation, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could be an unexpected gift in this regard, providing a more successful “Eastern” anchoring, supported by Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). That said, there are numerous uncertainties regarding how the Taliban will actually govern and these will prevent Iranian officials from fully relying on the ideological and geopolitical gains they seem to have achieved in Afghanistan, at least for now.

 

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is the author of the much-acclaimed Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani. He is an affiliated scholar with the Afro–Middle East Centre (AMEC, Johannesburg); Freie Universität (FU) Berlin’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics; and the Centre d’Etudes de la Coopération Internationale et du Développement (CECID) at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). You can follow him on Twitter.

Hamidreza Azizi is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow with the Middle East and Africa Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin; a Ph.D. in Regional Studies from the University of Tehran; and a former Assistant Professor of Regional Studies at Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran (2016-20). You can follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are their own.

Photo by MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/Getty Images



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