Iran – Taliban Relations: What to Expect

Iran – Taliban Relations: What to Expect

On October 4, less than two months since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, leaders of the group met with members of the Iranian delegation in order to discuss trade and business relations. The Iranian embassy in Kabul was one of few to remain operational. Historically, Iran has been considered among the Taliban’s bitter enemies. However, the current developments are indicative of Iran’s commitment to realpolitik.  

From Enmity to Pragmatism?

During the Taliban’s first reign in power, Iran was among the group’s key adversaries. Iran is religiously and culturally affiliated with Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic population (approximately 10-20% of the total population), a Shia minority group that suffered the most during the Taliban rule in 1990s. In fact, Iran and the Taliban were almost led into war in 1998 following the killing of 10 Iranian civilians (nine diplomats and one journalist) by the group, in the aftermath of the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif. Iranian opposition to the Taliban was such that Tehran actively supported its ousting by the US in 2001.

Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Iran has been cozying up to the group, with a significantly different orientation. This shift should actually come as no surprise.

Over the course of years, the Taliban started adopting a more pragmatic stance, the reason behind it was the designation of Iran as part of the ‘’axis of evil’’ by the Bush administration, the fall-out between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in 2009 and the group’s insurgency in the previous decade, by forging channels of communication with the group.

Decoding the Iranian Shift

Tehran has adopted a more pragmatic stance towards the Taliban regime for a plethora of reasons.

First, the Iranian leadership, similarly to China and Russia, welcomed the departure of the US forces/military presence in its own geopolitical backyard. Diplomatically, the withdrawal could be a blow to US credibility in the region, eroding the trust of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Washington’s key allies and Iran’s main adversaries in the broader region.

Second, Tehran is concerned about securing its border. Iran is currently host to 780.000 registered Afghan refugees and 2.3 million undocumented ones and shares 572 miles of borders with Afghanistan. By adopting a proactive and more engaging stance towards the Taliban, Iran aims to prevent another refugee influx that would pose an additional test for its strained healthcare system and could risk additional public local resentment, amid a dire socioeconomic crisis partially fueled by COVID-19 and the US sanctions. Additionally, smuggling of opium has been a key source of financial support to the group. Iran has been both a key transit route and a market itself with devastating results for its society.  Furthermore, the presence of ISK – the local/regional branch of ISIS – in Afghanistan, coupled with a potential descent into another civil war, pose as common threats, and points of convergence between the two sides.

Finally, the ideological restraints of the Iranian leadership have been partially lifted thanks to an apparent shift of the Taliban’s treatment towards Hazara people. During the last decade, the group started rebranding itself as a nationalistic inclusive group representing all Afghans, in an attempt to obtain international recognition but also to solidify its domestic legitimacy vis-a-vis the western-backed Afghan government.

The Way Forward: A Delicate Balance

The state of play in trade is expected to remain unchanged, despite the change of leadership in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been a key destination for Iranian export, amounting for approximately 4 billion dollars last year. Fuel exports to Afghanistan have continued since the Taliban takeover, providing an alternative market to the sanction-stricken Iran.

The Taliban will welcome Tehran’s change of heart towards its rule for their own reasons: Firstly, the country is in dire need of investments and foreign capital, and, secondly its leadership is looking for ways to diversify its external backers, as a remedy for its over reliance on Pakistan.

Given that public sentiment towards the Taliban remains negative among Iranians, Iran will have to maintain a careful rhetoric towards the new Afghan leadership in order to maintain this delicate balance. Should the Taliban comply with Tehran’s hard lines, mainly the treatment of Shia Muslims and restraining smuggling of opium, this pragmatist approach is likely to prevail. Iran will seek to claim its own stake, while boosting its relations with Russia and China, who are both expected to take advantage of the US vacuum.

In other words, the course of bilateral relations will be shaped by a transactional policy based on conditionality, depending on the way the Taliban decides to rule. The prevalence of the more radical elements within its ranks makes serious confrontation with Iran possible on ideological grounds.

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