Iran has limited influence over the Taliban and little to gain from prolonging the war.
Since President Donald Trump ordered the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike recently, it has been suggested that Iran might retaliate against the US through its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Another arena of potential retaliation is Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Tehran was using its influence with the Taliban to sabotage peace talks. But Pompeo gave no evidence for his claim, and there are strong reasons to doubt its veracity. Iran does not have enough control over the movement to derail negotiations; and, even if it did, prolonging the war would harm its interests.
That is not to deny Iranian support for the insurgents. Multiple reports allege that the group receives weaponry, funding, and training from the IRGC. Iran has reportedly hosted Taliban camps and provided a safe haven. This is a marriage of convenience, as Shia-majority Iran and the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban are ideological adversaries with a history of violent confrontation.
Tehran, along with the US, India, and Russia, backed forces fighting against the Taliban in the 1990s (the new head of Iran’s Quds force was reportedly involved in Afghanistan at that time). The two almost went to war when the Taliban killed several Iranian diplomats in 1998.
This all helps explain why Iran initially supported the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and helped set up the country’s new government. But when Washington declared Tehran part of the “Axis of Evil” and invaded Iraq in 2003, encircling Iran with American forces, its attitude to the Taliban changed.
At first, Tehran backed Hamid Karzai’s administration, but in 2005 it started developing ties with the insurgent group, according to Antonio Giustozzi in his book, The Taliban At War (the US government believes Iranian support for the Taliban started a bit later, around 2007; Iran, of course, denies it has provided material support but acknowledges diplomatic ties).
Iran’s assistance gradually increased, with the Taliban opening an office in Mashhad in 2012. The two were eventually united by a common enemy, the Islamic State (Daesh), which threatened Iran while fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
When former emir Mullah Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in 2016, his passport showed multiple Iranian stamps. The current emir, Haibatullah, also sought refuge in Iran in 2017, according to Giustozzi. Then, in 2018, the Iranian government made the relationship public, confirming its contact with the Taliban.
Official visits to Tehran followed, including one late last year led by the group’s deputy emir, Mullah Baradar.
Supporting the Taliban serves several purposes for Tehran. First, it deepens Iran’s influence in Afghan politics. Like it or not, the Taliban has grown in strength and now looks set to enter government.
Second, it enables Tehran to push back against increased Saudi and Emirati involvement in Afghanistan. And, last but not least, it further weakens the US war effort. But its support for the Taliban remains limited. Tehran also maintains ties with the Afghan government and has argued for Kabul’s inclusion in peace talks. Relations between Tehran and the insurgents are still quite new and overshadowed by a legacy of bitter animosity.
Moreover, even if Iran wanted to control the Taliban, it might not be able to. The movement has shown itself to be stubborn and independent-minded, even in its dealings with Pakistan, its most important patron.
Far from being a puppet acting solely at the behest of others, the group pursues “strategic autonomy”, according to a paper by former US counterterrorism official Tricia Bacon.
In 2013, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar to reduce Islamabad’s influence over its activities, while cultivating ties with other countries, such as Russia. As Theo Farrell writes in Unwinnable, his history of the British war in Afghanistan, Pakistan “cannot get the Taliban to do its bidding”. So what hope does that leave for Iran?
Even if Tehran could sabotage the peace talks, doing so would not serve its interests. The conflict has been extremely damaging to Iran, flooding the country with drugs and millions of refugees at a time of deep economic distress. If negotiations fail and Afghanistan remains unstable, US forces may stay there indefinitely, leaving a hostile troop presence on Iran’s doorstep.
Trade is of course negatively impacted by the war, and weak security prevents the flourishing of connectivity initiatives such as the Chabahar port project with India or plans to link Iran with China via a rail link through Afghanistan. Furthermore, instability allows Daesh to operate more efficiently.
It should be added that Iran’s partners, Russia and China, are firmly behind the peace process and would surely be displeased if the Iranians disrupted it. Tehran has depended on China as its only real economic lifeline since the US violated the JCPOA and reimposed economic sanctions.
As tensions flare in the Middle East, alienating Beijing to perpetuate a costly war in a neighbouring country would be insane for the Iranians. Also, why has Iran waited until now to sabotage the peace talks? Its conflict with the American government is hardly new, and there has been plenty of time to undermine the negotiations since they began in 2018.
But, far from jeopardising the peace process, Iran has been an active participant in various multilateral formats devoted to ending the conflict, including the Kabul Process, Moscow Process and Tashkent Conference.
Pompeo’s assertion that Iran “has refused to join the regional and international consensus for peace” is hypocritical, given that the US refused to participate fully in the Moscow Process.
Tehran also convenes a Regional Security Dialogue, involving Russia, China, India, and others, which is partly focused on Afghanistan. Why would Iran go to all this bother if its ultimate aim was to scupper peace talks and prolong the war?
Of course, Tehran might use its influence with the Taliban to attack American forces, as it has apparently done before. But allegations that Iran is trying to sabotage the peace process lack credibility and should be treated with extreme caution, especially coming from a mendacious US administration with a strong anti-Iranian agenda.
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