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Iran-Taliban Relations: Strategic Partnership Or Strategic Toolkit? – Analysis

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On November 27, 2019 Taliban Politburo Chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar visited Tehran and met with the Iran Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. According to Iran’s Press TV, they discussed Tehran’s readiness to facilitate the Intra Afghan Dialogue. Based on a Twitter statement of Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Doha, Taliban delegations and Iran Foreign Minister discussed a peaceful solution to the Afghanistan issue and Afghan migrants’ problem in Iran. Although, it’s not the first trip of the Taliban political leaders to meet Iranian officials. 

When Donald J. Trump the US president declared peace talks between the US and Taliban “dead” and suspended the negotiations because of Taliban deadly attack in Kabul, which killed 12 civilians and an American soldier, Taliban began their regional visits to China, Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan. In late September 2019, Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, deputy of Taliban Politburo along with his four colleagues travelled to Tehran and met with the Iran Foreign Ministry Officials. 

The question arising here is that the relations between the Taliban and Iran is a strategic partnership or strategic toolkit? Historically and ideologically, Iran and the Taliban are different. Ideologically, Taliban are Sunni extremists who follow Deobandi School of Islam whereas Iran is a Shia majority Muslim country who is follower of Shia Jaffari faith. Apart from their sectarian and ideological differences, the Islamic Republic of Iran prefer to describe each other have bitter history of geopolitical rivalry.

When in 1996 the Taliban seized Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, they were recognized by the regional rivals of Iran such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In reverse, Iran supported the Northern Alliance front against the Taliban under the leadership of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

In August 1998, Taliban captured the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in the northern Balkh province of Afghanistan and killed 10 Iranian diplomats as well as one Iranian correspondent. Following this incident, Iran deployed thousands of her troops on the border edge between the two countries, but avoided any direct intrusion into Afghanistan. 

So, due to 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. The Afghan officials in the west of Afghanistan claim that the Taliban in the western provinces of the country are backed by Iran in many walks. 

Given the above facts, 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 her vested interests?

There are certain common grounds that bring Iran and the Taliban closer as follows: 

First, presence of American forces in Afghanistan:

After the 9/11 attacks, Americans invaded Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban regime and putting an end to their autocratic government in Kabul. Since then, Taliban resurged and continued fighting against international military forces all out of US flawed strategies post-Taliban regime collapse. 

Chronologically, US-Iran rivalries go back to Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the regime change, where the Iranian revolutionaries took the US embassy diplomats hostage in Tehran.

This was not the only bone of contention between the US and Iran, but building of nuclear bomb, presence of Sepah Quds (Quds Army) Lashkar Fatemyioun (Fatemiyoun Division) in the Middle East and support to different Shiite militant groups like Hizbullah of Lebanon (a Shiite Lebanon-based militant group), al–Hashd-ash-Shabi (People’s Mobilization Unit) in Iraq and Houthi Shia militant group in the war ravaged Yemen, are the other major factors in US-Iran tumultuous relations. Given the current political developments in the region and Afghanistan in particular, Iran propping up of collaboration with the Taliban is to counter the US influence in the region in all forms. 

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

In 2015, Levant self-proclaimed Islamic State announced their presence in the eastern part of Afghanistan under the title of ISKP. This notional geographic area encompasses parts of Iran, China, Central Asia, Pakistan, the Indian Sub-continent and South East Asia to some extent.

Since the emergence of ISKP, the Taliban announced their opposition and declared jihad against them, where at the 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-Taliban on their eastern border and started collaboration with the Taliban to this end. 

Third, water dispute between Iran and Afghanistan:

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 province of Sistan and Balochistan.

Owning 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 reduced remarkably towards Iran. However, 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-Abas and Chabahar ports without any precondition, but the agreement was neither ratified nor implemented owing to political unrest in both countries particularly in Afghanistan.

Recently, Afghanistan through the financial support of India built the Salma Dam in the Chishti Sharif district of the Herat province, as well as began construction of the Kamal Khan dam in the Nimroz province, for which Iran is strictly opposed. Hence, the reason behind the Iranian support to the Taliban in the western provinces is to prevent the construction of more dams, such instability in effect will help Iran to take advantage of the Helmand River unsystematically without any agreement. 

Consequently, the Afghanistan problem requires a political solution, because history has proven the fact that no side is able to eliminate the opponent totally and be the final victor. All the same, Iran sees the Taliban as a potential player in the Kabul future political arena where her Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif maintained, “I think it would be impossible to have future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban”. Therefore, Iran wants to hold on her relations with the Taliban before any peace agreement is struck between the Taliban, US and the Afghan government.

Finally yet importantly, the relation between Iran and the Taliban is not a strategic partnership rather it is a strategic toolkit. Because there is huge irreconcilable ideological and historical differences between the two, but for the sake of mutual interests this matrimony of convenience is at best a strategic toolkit. This said, neither Taliban is a reliable friend for Iran due to their strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE – all Iran’s regional rivals, plus Shiite revolutionary ideology nor Iran is a reliable friend for the Taliban because of their ideological differences and their links with Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

Aside from other issues, even the Taliban have never been happy about the cultural influence of Iran in Afghanistan. As an instance, when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, they rejected any cultural link between Iran and Afghanistan and ignored Iran’s interests. In all, in case of any political settlement in Afghanistan, neither Iran nor the Taliban will be looking at each other as strategic partners, rather their collaboration would revolve around seasonal proportionality of interests in a time-serving manner to score their own objectives.

*About the author: Zahid Aria, Ph.D Candidate at Department of Defenc and National Security Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India.

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