Iran and the Taliban: Evolving Toward a Better Relationship

To Iran, the Taliban movement can never be the same as it was in the 90s. The state of hostility between Afghanistan and Iran is over, and the borders will remain under control.

  • Iran and the Taliban: Evolving Toward a Better Relationship

The Taliban movement has regained control of 33 provinces of a total of 34, including the capital, Kabul. Neighboring countries began to monitor the Taliban’s decisions and acted to determine future steps towards the new Afghan rulers. Among these countries is the "Islamic Republic of Iran”, which has 945 kilometers of border with Afghanistan. Will the state of hostility that has existed in the 90s persist, when the Taliban was ruling the country at the time, or will the relationship change, and in which direction?

Afghanistan has a long history of invasion by foreign invaders and conflicts between internal warring factions. At the gateway between Asia and Europe, this land has been conquered by, among others, Darius I of Babylon at around 500 BC, and Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Mahmud of Ghazni - the 11th-century conqueror who built an empire from Iran to India - is considered Afghanistan's greatest invader.

Genghis Khan captured the region in the 13th century, but the area was not unified (as a single state) until the 18th and 19th centuries when Islam had taken root. Britain, looking to protect its Indian empire from Russia, attempted to annex Afghanistan, which led to a series of Anglo-Afghan Wars a few years after the first World War.

When the British were defeated in the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919-1921), Afghanistan became independent. Concerned that Afghanistan had fallen behind the rest of the world, Ghazi Amir Amanullah Khan – sovereign of Afghanistan (1919) began a relentless campaign for social and economic reform to declare Afghanistan a kingdom rather than an emirate and appointed himself king. He launched a series of modernization plans and attempts to limit the power of the Loya Jirga, the National Assembly. Troubled by Amanullah's policies, critics took up arms in 1928, and by 1929, the king abdicated and left the country. 

Muhammad Zahir Shah became king in 1933 and established stability, and ruled the country for the next 40 years. Zahir Shah appointed his cousin, General Muhammad Daoud Khan, as prime minister to initiate social reforms, promote women's rights including allowing women a public presence. However, Muhammad Daoud Khan overthrew his cousin, appointed himself president, and established a republic that enjoyed strong relations with the Soviet Union.

In the first half of the Cold War until 1987, Afghanistan was under the umbrella of the Soviets and the Shah of Iran intervened to support Afghan President Mohammad Daoud to detach himself from Moscow. However, the 1987 revolution toppled the Afghan president, and the Islamic revolution dethroned the Shah of Iran. A new era began where a US-Saudi partnership supported the Islamists in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union's occupation.

The US likes to say that it lured the Soviet Union into a "Russian Vietnam war": The Soviet Union apparently fell into the trap and occupied Afghanistan in 1979. Paradoxically, it was the beginning of US influence in Central Asia. Pakistani intelligence, Britain, the CIA, China, and Saudi Arabia began to support the Afghan mujahideen in Pakistan. They organized military and financial supplies across the “Friendship Bridge” that connects the two banks of the river (the border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union) until the Soviet withdrawal was achieved in 1989. The isolation of the “Islamic Revolution” in Iran had begun.

The Mujahideen continued their resistance against the regime of Soviet-backed communist President Dr. Muhammad Najibullah, who had been elected head of the Soviet puppet state in 1986. Afghan fighters appointed Sibghatullah Mojaddedi as their exiled government for two months (April to June 1992). With the help of apostate government forces, Mujahideen and other rebel groups stormed the capital, Kabul, removing Najibullah from power. Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary guerrilla leader, led troops to the capital. The United Nations protected Najibullah. The Mujahideen, already beginning to splinter as warlords, fought over Afghanistan's future and formed a predominantly Islamic state with Burhanuddin Rabbani as president (1992-2001).

The newly formed Islamic militia, the Taliban, rises to power on promises of peace under the command of Mullah Mohammad Omar. Exhausted by years of drought, famine, and war, most Afghans agree with the Taliban's adherence to traditional Islamic values. The Taliban banned opium poppy cultivation and trade, suppressed crime, and limited women's education and employment. Women were required to be fully veiled and not allowed to go out of their homes. Islamic law was enforced through executions and public amputations. The United States refused to recognize the Taliban’s authority.

On August 8, 1998, the Taliban occupied the Mazar-i-Sharif province inhabited by the Afghan Shiite Hazara and arrested 11 Iranian diplomats from the consulate and an IRNA correspondent. Since that date, there is a belief that they were killed after confirming the statements of the official spokesman of the Taliban, who considered that "a group out of control had carried out this act without orders from the leadership." This is what caused the lasting hostile between Iran and the Taliban.

The "Islamic Republic of Iran" supported the Hazaras in Afghanistan, the Tajiks (against the Pashtuns who represent the majority), and the Uzbeks in a limited form at first, which helped in the formation of forces called the "Northern Alliance". Pakistan played an important role in Afghanistan, as America supported and benefited from its relations with the Taliban to secure and maintain a safe passage from Pakistan to Turkmenistan to help contain Iran. 

Iran supported the Hazaras (Afghan Shiites) with all the anti-Taliban forces and mobilized troops on the border with the Taliban when the Iranian diplomats were killed. Iran presented itself as an ally at the table that included the "6 + 2" contact group organized by the United Nations (China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan + America, and Russia) and which included Afghanistan's neighbors. Iran was able to elbow out Pakistan by persuading America to impose sanctions on the Taliban (and Al-Qaeda) against the will of Pakistan, which did not respect the sanctions.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cooperated with the then-US envoy James Dobbins on issues of concern to Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - Al-Quds (IRGC-Quds) Brigade provided aid. General Ismail Qaani commanded the IRGC-Quds brigade in Afghanistan. The latter, in 2020, became supreme commander of the Al-Quds Brigade following the assassination of its commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad. Qaani was on the ground in Afghanistan for many decades and forged strong relations with several Afghan parties.

The relationship between Iran and the US deteriorated around Afghanistan when Washington accused Tehran of harboring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (after Pakistan abandoned him to the Taliban in 1995). Iran denied this and considered its relationship with “the butcher of Kabul” as far from being rosy. The US also said that leading members of al-Qaeda sought refuge in Iran. However, many al-Qaeda leaders were in Pakistan (where Osama bin Laden was later found and killed).

The US claimed to have trapped the Soviet Union into the Afghanistan quagmire, however, it seems Washington never learned from history and fell into the same trap by invading Afghanistan in 2001. Euphoric by a swift victory and the occupation of Kabul, President George Bush had bigger plans in occupying seven Muslim capitals in five years, including Iran.

The US President decided to include the “Islamic Republic of Iran” in his 2002 "Axis of Evil" speech, chose the alliance with Pakistan instead of Iran, and occupied Iraq in 2003, knocking at the western Iranian borders. 

After signing a "strategic partnership" agreement with President Hamid Karzai in 2005, President Bush imposed a dry and distant position between former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iran, accused of providing the Taliban with advanced weapons and supporting the "Northern Alliance" headed by Ahmed Masoud (son of Masoud Shah, nicknamed the “Lion of Panjshir”, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2001). The young Ahmad Masoud is still in control of the only province that refused to surrender to the Taliban and is engaged in negotiations related to his role in the future government.

Iran aimed to prevent the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from harming minorities, and protect Afghanistan's long borders. The Iranian message was clear: any incursion into Iranian territory from Afghanistan would force an Iranian-US battle inside Afghanistan. The Iranian fear increased following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the continued presence of US forces in Mesopotamia.

The US and Pakistan secretly supported the separatists' terrorist militant "Jaish al-Adl” (Army of Justice), who claimed the independence of Sistan-Baluchistan in south-eastern Iran. Following the gains achieved by the Taliban and Iran's support for it against the US occupation forces (which led 30 countries representing NATO), relations developed between the Iranians and the Taliban movement. News emerged that the campaign had opened an office in Zahedan, Iran, near the Pakistani border, notwithstanding denials by the Iranians.

When the Taliban gained ground in different Afghan provinces, Tehran announced that it "does not have a vengeful mindset (referring to the Taliban's killing of the 11 diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif) and that it supports any solution that helps end the Afghan conflict."

What is remarkable is that a senior leader of the terrorist group “Jundullah” (Jaish al-Adl branch), known as Amir Narawi, went to meet the Taliban - a few weeks after the Taliban delegation visited Iran. It was later announced that Narawi’s head had been cut off. This event sent a message to Iran that its south-eastern borders and its national security were also the Taliban's concern. To Iran, the Taliban movement can never be the same as it was in the 90s. The state of hostility between Afghanistan and Iran is over, and the borders will remain under control. The official response came quickly from Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, that "the Taliban are part of Afghanistan's future."

When, in the last months, the Taliban liberated the city of Herat, near the Iranian-Turkmenistan border, Iran asked the Taliban to ensure the protection of its diplomats at the consulate. The following day, Khatibzadeh said that "all diplomats are in good health and safe."

Iran hosted several meetings of Taliban officials in Tehran, and consequently, it was able to weave good relations even after entering the war against it in the 90s. This indicates the change in the Taliban's attitude towards Iran and Afghans of all stripes and may extend to the Taliban’s behavior towards the world.

In the Ashura rituals at the beginning of the current month of Muharram, a slight problem occurred when some Taliban members removed the Ashura flags in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. However, the Taliban was quick to apologize. Not only that, but senior Taliban officials also attended the Ashura councils and held a sermon to the crowd. The Ashura commemoration was also held in Kabul after the Taliban took control- which added an atmosphere of reassurance to Iran and the Afghan Hazara that things had really changed and that the Taliban movement 2021 could become a movement aimed at building a state.

What matters to Iran is the security of its borders- removing the danger to its national security along the borders- and combating narcotics, which Afghanistan produces, representing 90% of its national income. In addition, the Taliban protected the Shiites of Afghanistan and expelled the US and all occupation forces, whose presence on the borders posed a great danger to Iran. Tehran is thereby on the road to achieving one of its most important goals, announced by the Wali al-Faqih at the funeral of Major General Qassem Soleimani, to "expel America from West Asia." 

This week, at the request of the Taliban leadership, Iran rushed to supply Afghanistan with oil and gas to help the movement cover its energy needs. The volume of Iranian oil exports to Afghanistan is about 20 000 barrels per day, which is expected to double in the first months of Taliban rule. Taliban decided to lower taxes on Iranian goods by 70%. Trucks started to flow at a higher intensity between Iran and Afghanistan, and Iranian truck drivers are reporting excellent treatment by the Taliban.

The Taliban threat has turned into an opportunity for Iran, Russia, and China. These countries are pleased to include Afghanistan in the Axis of Resistance, opposed to the US sanctions that it began to impose on Afghan funds to prevent access by the Taliban. When the new Afghan government is announced after the departure of the foreign forces, China, Russia, and Iran are expected to show eagerness to cooperate with it and include Afghanistan in the "Silk Road" project. The Taliban are expected to combat the Takfiri threat (the “Islamic State” and other extremists) that neighboring countries fear. Russia, China, and Iran want to benefit from Afghanistan's vast mineral wealth. This will not happen unless the Taliban manages to extinguish the fires still burning in the northern state of Panjshir first. 

America has left Afghanistan and is awaiting its exit from Iraq - if it abides by its commitment - so that the countries that reject US hegemony can relax, particularly the "Islamic Republic" in Iran. There are also signs that the Taliban movement will reject any American or foreign dictates. But it wants to maintain the commercial relationship with the West and not close the door in its face. Thus, it is expected that the Taliban will protect its “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and keep foreign forces away but, at the same time, weave relations with the international community, most needed for ruling a country exhausted by decades of wars and whose needs in all domains as desperate.

The opinions mentioned in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Al mayadeen, but rather express the opinion of its writer exclusively.
Elijah J. Magnier

Veteran war correspondent and Senior Political Risk Analyst