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Counterview: Iran-Taliban Romance And US Withdrawal From Afghanistan – OpEd

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Tehran used to continuously assure the West that the danger did not lie in Shia Islam to global peace, and the episode of 9/11 occurred on the right time for the Iranians to prove their claim. Though Iran`s then President Mohammad Khatami provided intelligence to the United States and IRGC-QF`s (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force) Qassem Soleimani oversaw the contact to fight ‘war on terror’ against the Taliban but things could not move towards negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Following Afghanistan`s invasion, George W. Bush in January 2002 labeled Iran as ‘axis of evil’ along with North Korea and Iraq. Because Bush administration wanted to emphasize that these states possess weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and support terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and pose threat to US.  

Soon after 9/11, US invaded Iraq with his allies in 2003 and turned arrogant against every anti-US actor and non-state actor after showcasing massive power in invading Baghdad in just three weeks, which Iran could not do in eight long years (1980-88). Tehran, out of fear, put everything on the table to negotiate with Washington but was turned away and this left it with limited options.

The Islamic Republic of Iran based on the Shia version of Islam decided to put the ideology on a side and move to the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ approach instead. Though Taliban is a Sunni group but it also realized the need to befriended with Tehran. Other than US, the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) is also a common enemy of both.  Because ISKP often targets Shia communities and clashes between Taliban and ISKP fighters are almost a routine. 

Other than common enemies, Tehran and Taliban have common friends too. For instance, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) had adopted a harsh response against Qatar in recent past, moving Doha closer to Tehran and then Taliban who maintain its political office there. Whereas Pakistan`s good relations with Taliban is an obvious factor making Pakistan a common friend of Taliban and as well as Iran. Whereas Chinese and Russian inclination towards the Taliban is another plus for Tehran.  

Moreover, Iran has an influence over Afghan Tajiks through its Persian identity, and Tajiks have a heavy presence in almost every running sector of Afghanistan today including the administration, politics and bureaucracy. Even the Former Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, who led Afghan delegation in intra-Afghan Peace talks with Taliban, is also a Tajik. It is a fact that Taliban cannot ignore. 

Furthermore, according to sources, Taliban are designing to form a government on the Iranian model but on Sunni Islamic principles. In this model, supreme leader is the head of the state and the highest ranking political and religious authority even above the president. In the proposed inclusive Afghan government dominated by Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada is expected to be the supreme leader of Afghanistan. He is likely to preside over a Supreme Council of 11 to 72 members.

Though Iran-Taliban romance exists to a great account but it does not fade the challenges in this friendship. For instance, as per different sources including UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), around  3 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees are hosted by Iran and any likely civil war in Afghanistan can cause further influx of Afghan refugees there which Tehran cannot afford anymore. 

Secondly, in 2013, IRGC started recruiting Afghan Shiites to join Fatemiyoun militia and fight on behalf of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It is argued that most of these fighters came from the Afghan refugees and over the years some 50,000 Afghans were deployed to Syria. Once they get back home, Taliban will surely remain cautious about them as they are trained militants. 

Thirdly, there are rumors that Haqqani Network is getting closer to Iran. Iran`s influence over Tajiks and now Haqqani Network will test Taliban`s patience for sure in future. Because Iran’s strategic culture is pretty much clear from its presence and to an account its influence in Yemen, backing Houthis, backing Hezbollah in Lebanon, supporting Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and having political say and commercial grip in Iraq. 

To conclude, Taliban takeover has positive implications for Tehran. Because Iran`s circle of allies has further increased bringing Afghanistan in it and Iran will have long lasting benefits from this alliance. There are certain risks and challenges for both as Taliban and Tehran to test their friendship. For instance, Iran`s likely influence over Fatemiyoun militia, Haqqani Network and Afghanistan`s Tajik community and on Taliban`s hand, Taliban`s arrogancy against Afghanistan`s Shia community are challenges in this friendship but still things are so far so good for both of them. Therefore, Iran`s cheering after US`s withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

*Asadullah Raisani – Research Intern at Balochistan Think Tank Network, Quetta.

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