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Afghanistan: Iran split over how to deal with rising power of the Taliban

As the Taliban advances across Afghanistan, Iranians differ over whether to negotiate or attempt to counter the militant group
Taliban delegation arrives for the presentation of the final declaration of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha on 18 July 2021 (AFP)
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Tehran

Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan have never been easy. 

In 1998, while ruling Iran's eastern neighbour, the organisation murdered nine diplomats and an Islamic Republic official News Agency (IRNA) journalist in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan.

In response, the Islamic Republic put its military on the offensive, building up forces on the border with an eye to a possible military operation against the Taliban.

Since that nadir in relations - eventually remedied in part by the US-led invasion a few years later - Iran and the Taliban have alternated between negotiation and animosity, with a range of different perspectives among Iranian officials as to how to deal with the group.

On 8-9 July this year, Tehran hosted a round of intra-Afghan talks with representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban to discuss Afghanistan's future, following the pullout of US troops and the Taliban's capture of much of the country.

“We should have interaction with anyone who may be able to rise to power in Afghanistan," a retired Iranian diplomat told Middle East Eye.

"Therefore, our current policy has been good since the biggest threat for us would be the formation of an anti-Iran political system in Afghanistan."

But others within the Iranian government are wary of allowing their once-bitter rivals too much sway.

Avoiding conflict

Iran's outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, was secretary of the country's Supreme National Security Council at the time of Iran's build-up on the Afghan border in 1998.

At the time he was in Mecca on pilgrimage, but as soon as he found out about the plans for an invasion of Afghanistan, he swiftly returned to Tehran and put a stop to it after a conversation with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

During the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iran assisted American forces and even played an important role in the liberation of the capital Kabul before US soldiers arrived.

Iranian soldiers march forward during the largest-ever Revolutionary guards' exercises near the Afghan border 06 September 1998 (AFP)
Iranian soldiers march forward during the largest-ever Revolutionary Guards' exercises near the Afghan border, 6 September 1998 (AFP)

Iran was also active in the conference on Afghanistan reconstruction in Bonn, Germany, which led to the formation of an interim administration under the leadership of Hamid Karzai, who served as president between 2001 and 2014. 

But now both Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemingly view the rising power of the Taliban as a reality on the ground which cannot be ignored.

Zarif stated in April 2021 that negotiations with the Taliban were being carried out for the sake of Iran’s national interests, but also to “convince” the militant group that there needs to be an “inclusive peace” in Afghanistan. Although he also warned that an “Islamic emirate” in Afghanistan would be a threat to India and Iran’s national security. 

A retired diplomat told MEE that Zarif's Afghanistan policy had been "smart", and added that Tehran did not want to get involved in a conflict against the Taliban and pay the price of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began in May. 

"Iran doesn’t seek to place itself against the Taliban alone," he said, "and if there is going to be a military campaign against the group, all the countries which might get annoyed by the radical group in the future, must be involved along with Tehran.

“If Iran doesn’t play well and makes an enemy out of the Taliban soon, I think some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and the US would attempt to finance and direct the Taliban to weaken Tehran and divert its attention away from Iraq and other Arab countries.” 

Reformists call on Tehran to counter Taliban 

Reformist activists, who have generally been supportive of Rouhani and Zarif, have called for Iran to take a harder line against the Taliban, however, arguing that the group represents a similar threat and ideology to the Islamic State (IS) group.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent reformist, tweeted in February 2021 that he apologised to Afghanistan for Iran “getting along” with the Taliban and lending the group legitimacy.

'The Taliban is a religious group which is no stranger to extremism and murder, especially murdering Shias, and its hands are stained with the blood of our diplomats'

- Iranian cleric

Furthermore, Mahmoud Sadeghi, an outspoken former reformist MP, on 11 July slammed the foreign ministry for “hosting the representative of the Taliban terrorist group”. 

Some clerics have also adopted a negative position against the policy of Rouhani’s government toward the Taliban, with the reformist Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers on 21 July releasing a statement denouncing the group as anti-Shia and intolerant of other faiths. It questioned how the government could be willing to see troops dying to counter IS in Syria, but keep silent in the face of the Taliban “resurgence”. 

“The Taliban is a religious extremist group which is no stranger to extremism and murder, especially murdering Shias, and its hands are stained with the blood of our diplomats," a reform-minded cleric told MEE.

“It is disturbing that in the silence of the Islamic world and especially Islamic Iran, Afghanistan is being occupied by the Taliban.” 

Conservative support

By contrast, hardline conservatives in Iran have been unusually supportive of Rouhani and Zarif's strategy.

In 2020, Ahmad Naderi, a conservative MP, described the Taliban as a “deep-rooted movement” and said that Tehran’s cooperation with them could lead to stability in Afghanistan.

The influential Kayhan daily, meanwhile, whose chief editor is appointed by Khamenei, claimed on 26 June that the Taliban was different compared to the past and did not behead people anymore. 

Iranian state TV’s non-negative coverage of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has become a running joke on social media, with many noting the Khamenei-appointed Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) network dropping its "terrorist" prefix for the group around six months ago.

Not all conservatives are convinced, however.

The Fatemiyoun Division, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps consisting of Shia Afghan refugees in Iran, has maintained its fiercely anti-Taliban stance, though it has declared support for the intra-Afghan talks and will act based on the interests of Afghanistan and upon the orders of Khamenei. 

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Meanwhile, in a rare criticism of the Islamic Republic establishment, senior Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani issued a statement on 15 July 2021, urging the Iranian government indirectly not to trust the Taliban, with its “evil actions and killings”.

He added that doing so would be a “grave” and “irreparable” mistake. 

An Iranian analyst focused on Afghan affairs told MEE that the best option that served Tehran’s interest was a political solution.

He said Tehran wanted to convince the Taliban and other groups, as well as the central government, to sit behind a table and agree on forming a new political system, like in Lebanon, with each ethnic group having a share in power.

“If the war continues and turns into a civil war, of course, there are signs of it, then we will face a new wave of migration, drug-trafficking and the activities of radical groups such as IS and al-Qaeda, which would probably pose a serious threat to the security of Iran’s eastern borders," he said.