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What to expect for Taliban-Iran relations

  • Giorgio Cafiero
  • 21 Jan 2022

Iran has a high stake in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and Tehran is determined to carefully engage the new rulers in Kabul.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, fourth left, listens to the acting Foreign Minister in Afghanistan's Taliban-run Cabinet, Amir Khan Muttaqi, third right, during their delegations meeting in Tehran on January 9. ( Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP )

On January 9, the Taliban’s Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi paid his first visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran. While in Tehran, Muttaqi and his delegation met with Iran’s chief diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to discuss serious business. The Iranians also hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan opposition. 

Although the Taliban has not yet persuaded Tehran to formally recognise the new government in Kabul as “legitimate”, Iran and the Taliban are determined to continue working with each other in ways that are highly pragmatic. Both regimes seek to avoid hostilities such as those which led to much vitriol between the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Emirate during the 1990s.

As recently explained by Dr Kamran Bokhari, Iran and Pakistan are the two countries with the highest stakes in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Tehran has many interests in the war-torn country that relate to refugee flows, environmental crises, terrorist threats, the illicit trade of narcotics, and the status of Shia Muslims and other minority groups in Afghanistan. Tehran would have a difficult time advancing such interests in post-US Afghanistan without having some sort of relationship with the Taliban.

Years before the US occupation of Afghanistan ended in 2021, Iran’s leadership was realistic about the odds of the Taliban holding some degree of power after the departure of NATO forces. For this reason, Tehran engaged the Taliban and started preparing for a future in which it would be necessary to work with the organisation that previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. 

Dialogue is key to averting hostilities

Today, Iran is determined to avoid belligerence in its relationship with Afghanistan’s government.

Memories of Iranian diplomats being killed in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 remain vivid and contribute to anti-Taliban sentiments among many ordinary Iranians. Abdollahian was serious when he addressed that episode earlier this month with Muttaqi’s delegation, stressing the need for the Islamic Republic’s diplomats to remain protected in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Late last year, there were border clashes, which both sides agreed resulted from a “misunderstanding” between the two countries. From Tehran’s standpoint, meetings such as the ones earlier this month are important to finding ways to minimise the risk of such flare-ups down the line. 

Water politics

Climate change will complicate water disputes, which have been important in Afghan-Iranian relations for decades. The economic situation in Afghanistan could make the dispute resolution even more challenging. 

“Like most climate-related issues, both states and their people would benefit from a cooperative approach that uses science-based management,” Dr Assal Rad, a senior research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, told TRT World

“[B]oth governments will need to communicate not only with each other, but also other neighbouring states, since this is a regional issue that requires a collective response.” 

Notably, after the Taliban delegation came to Iran earlier this month for talks, Afghanistan reportedly “released water behind Kamal Khan Dam to flow and reach the southern province of Sistan-Baluchestan”. This demonstrated for Iran the benefits of engaging the Taliban diplomatically.

The rise of Daesh-K 

The threat of armed extremist groups such as Daesh – Khorasan Province (Daesh-K) gives Iran and the Taliban more reason to cooperate in the sphere of security. With vicious fighting between the Taliban and Daesh-K in recent months, officials in Tehran realise that any efforts aimed at weakening the new regime in Kabul could result in gains for Daesh-K. 

Given that Khorasan is a historic region encompassing land in northern Afghanistan as well as northeastern Iran and southern Turkmenistan, it is easy to understand why Tehran views Daesh-K as a grave threat to Iranian national security and is willing to work with the Taliban in the interest of preventing that force from growing more powerful. 

The terror group recruits militants from various ethnic backgrounds, including Uighur and Baloch people, with the aim of destabilising China, Pakistan and Iran. 

It remains to be seen how easily Beijing, Islamabad and Tehran can come to rely on the “Taliban 2.0” as a counterterrorism partner. But it seems safe to bet that the continued threat of Daesh-K will give basically all of Afghanistan’s neighbours incentives to try to work with the new rulers in Kabul in this fight against a common enemy.

Standing against Washington’s cruel sanctions

With the Taliban delegation in Tehran this month, Amirabdollahian took advantage of the opportunity to blast Washington for its “wrong policies” vis-a-vis Afghanistan. Iran’s top diplomat also called on the US to end its financial warfare against the war-torn country.

With the US imposing sanctions on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there are grave concerns about the country experiencing one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the modern era, including mass starvation.  

Suffering itself from US economic sanctions and other problems such as Covid-19 and ongoing domestic unrest, Tehran has its own interests in limiting the number of Afghan refugees entering Iran in need of assistance.

Additionally, when Afghanistan was not under US-imposed sanctions, Iran was able to take advantage of its neighbour’s links to the global economy. 

“Iran benefitted from Afghanistan’s connections to the international community to access hard currency, something that obviously went away when the old Kabul government fell [in August 2021],” said Barbara Slavin, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, in an interview with TRT World

Both factors give Iran an interest in ensuring that the US eases its sanctions against Kabul and unfreezes Afghanistan’s foreign reserves.

The question of recognition

When and under what conditions would Iran formally recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s “legitimate” government? For now, Tehran seems to believe that the Taliban needs to demonstrate more moderation and tolerance before Iran formalises diplomatic relations. 

Iran has made no secret of its disappointment in the “Taliban 2.0” for not being more inclusive. However, by adding Shia and Tajik Afghans to the government and doing more to protect the rights of women and the welfare of certain minority groups, the Taliban could improve its image before Tehran. Whether that’s even on the cards is another question.

Some experts believe that Tehran would take the step of normalising relations with the Taliban regime if other countries do so first, suggesting that Iran might be hesitant about being the first country in the world to legitimise the current Afghan government. 

“If China and Russia recognised the Taliban then we can expect the same step from Iran too,” Dr Hakki Uygur, director of the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara, told TRT World.

In any event, it is not clear when Iran or any other country with stakes in post-US Afghanistan will recognise the Taliban’s “legitimacy”. Nonetheless, Iranian officials are determined to continue engaging the new rulers in Kabul while trying to gain greater influence over the Taliban. 

Yet mindful of the countless uncertainties and the extent to which Afghanistan’s situation is very fragile, saying that Iran will have a difficult time dealing with the Taliban and the country it governs would be quite an understatement.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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