Fighters with Afghanistan's Taliban militia are quickly taking over the country, but where will Iran stand when the dust settles? Photo: AFP

As US troops quickly withdraw after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, regional powers are moving to fill the emerging power vacuum in a country long bedeviled by lethal internal rivalries.

Iran, the top trading partner of Afghanistan and an influential neighbor with high stakes in its stability, has engaged both the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in recent months.

This comes even though many Iranians have decried their government’s overtures to the Taliban as treacherous considering the group’s track record of sponsoring violence and terrorism including in Iran.

The US troop withdrawal has already created massive reverberations across Afghanistan. The Taliban have recently claimed to have conquered 85% of the country and continue to make advances into government-held territories.

Other sources paint a slightly different picture of the Taliban’s ascendency. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a fine-tuned map updated daily, has estimated the Taliban now control 223 districts representing 54.7% of the country while government-controlled areas amount to a mere 17.9%.

Iran’s outreach to the Taliban, including a meeting it hosted in Tehran on July 7 and 8 with envoys from the militant network and the Afghan government, shows the Islamic Republic is priming itself for any scenario.

These include restoration of a Taliban-led theocratic government, reversing years of US-backed efforts to purge extremism and introduce democracy in the landlocked and war-ravaged nation.

Tehran has not flinched from revealing its ultimate desire for Afghanistan – the establishment of a “comprehensive Islamic state” – as put by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

An Islamic state at Iran’s doorstep may not bode well for the United States, which over two decades plowed substantial funds into bringing an American rendition of democracy to Afghanistan. Equal funds were allocated to uproot terrorism and religious fanaticism.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center-left, of the Taliban in Tehran, January 2021. Photo: AFP / Tasnim News

Let the people decide

Iran seems to believe an Islamic state in Afghanistan would be a natural ally, with both rooted in anti-American dogma.

As President Joe Biden suggested in his remarks on July 8 on the drawdown of US forces, the war on Afghanistan was not initiated with the aim of “nation-building” and the future of the country will be left to its people to decide which form of governance they prefer.

In Tehran’s decision-making circles, Biden’s words are being construed as an admission of defeat and a prelude for Iran to wade in and forge a new ideological alliance.

In January this year, Iran’s Foreign Ministry hosted a controversial meeting with a delegation of Taliban representatives visiting Tehran headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder and political deputy of the insurgent group.

Iranian authorities have since been unanimous in defending their burgeoning ties with the Taliban, even sporadically sanitizing and sugarcoating its dreadful past.

Taliban representatives also met Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who tweeted shortly after the meeting: “In today’s meeting with the political delegation of Taliban, I found the leaders of this group determined to combat the United States. Those who have been subjected to torture for 13 years in Guantanamo have not abandoned the fight against the United States in the region.”

Shamkhani was blasted by pro-reform media and public figures who challenged his understanding of Afghan politics and Iran’s interests. But his view gave articulation to the Islamic Republic’s rationale for cozying up to the Taliban: any group, faction or government that stands up to the US can potentially be a comrade for Iran.

Shortly before Shamkhani’s statement, on December 2, 2020, Ahmad Naderi, a conservative MP from Tehran, launched a bombshell on social media when he tweeted: “Taliban is one of the noble movements of the region with a Pashtun background …

“Cooperation with them can expand stability in the Afghanistan society and prevent the influence of groups such as ISIS. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of the US media’s misrepresentation of them.”

Taliban militants gather around men accused of spying prior to their execution on June 27, 2008. Photo: AFP

A history of violence

Responses by Iranian and Afghan netizens were so fierce that he removed his tweet after a few hours. Many reminded him of the Taliban’s dim history of violence against women, its brutal campaigns of murdering civilians and the economic and social retrogression it inflicted on Afghanistan during the years of its “Islamic Emirate” from 1996 to 2001.

Afghan local media reports have recently cited an independent poll that showed only 4-8% of the population support a Taliban comeback. Another survey by the Afghan Civil Society Forum revealed 96% of Afghans believe the Taliban’s fight against the government in Kabul is illegitimate.

According to the same survey conducted in November last year, an overwhelming 86% of Afghans believe the Taliban are responsible for the unrest, corruption, illiteracy and lawlessness sweeping the country.

Many in Iran harbor a similar grudge against the Taliban, including for its longstanding suppression of Hazara Shiites, a Persian-speaking ethnic minority residing mostly in the rugged highlands of Hazarajat in central Afghanistan.

Making up nearly 9% of Afghanistan’s population, Hazaras have been historically victimized owing to their practice of Shia Islam and their cultural commonalities with Iranians. Tens of thousands have fled the Taliban’s persecution to take sanctuary in neighboring Iran.

Nor have many Iranians forgotten the Taliban’s August 8, 1998, siege of the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, in which eight diplomats and one prominent journalist were killed. The event almost brought the two neighbors to war.

Yet the Islamic Republic has decided to gloss over this stained history and pave the way for engagement with the Taliban, first because its triumph over Afghanistan seems inevitable and second because they have long fought against a common enemy, the United States.

In this file photo taken on March 12, 2002, US soldiers arrive at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Maintaining a foothold

Some experts also think Tehran’s engagement with the Taliban seeks to preserve its foothold in Afghanistan, where it has invested heavily in recent years.

“Any state that has invested in Afghanistan wants to continue that level of engagement even after the withdrawal of the US troops. We have even seen that in the case of India that is trying to open communication channels with the Taliban. Iran, India’s close economic partner, also wants the same,” said Zahid Shahab Ahmed, a research fellow at Australia’s Deakin University.

“By cooperating with the Taliban in some ways, I think Tehran is also looking at a short-term gain, that is the US troop withdrawal from its neighborhood. Tehran has been deeply concerned about the presence of US troops in Afghanistan,” he told Asia Times.

“Once the US troops leave and the Taliban revert to their old style of governance, for example targeting of Shias, Iran will have no option but to recalibrate its approach.”

Others note Iran has contributed to the stabilization of Afghanistan and even worked briefly with the US government in the aftermath of America’s 2001 invasion to bring a democratic government to power.

Although President George W Bush’s branding of Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” ruined those efforts and radicalized the Iranian leadership, which then decided to cease working with the Americans, the Islamic Republic had – and still has – an interest in the security of Afghanistan.

“Following the US intervention in 2001, Iran played a constructive role in the selection of a leadership for the new state. Iran prefers stability in Afghanistan and would prefer not getting drawn into a proxy-driven, chaotic civil war,” said Marvin Weinbaum, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“But if such a war begins, Iran will seek to create a sphere of influence in much of western Afghanistan. It will be determined not to allow any other regional power to exercise a major influence over a future Afghan regime,” he added.

Weinbaum, a former analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the US Department of State, believes despite having started to work with each other, Iran-Taliban relations are marred by mutual skepticism.

Uneasy neighbors: Iran and Afghanistan share a long and porous border. Image: Wikimedia

Hedging strategy

“A Taliban that has consolidated power will be unlikely to tolerate a Shia Iran exercising an influence on the country. It works the other way around. Iran, like most of the regional states, is fearful of the Taliban exporting its ideology and brand of militant Sunni Islam,” he told Asia Times.

“Despite the antagonism of the 1990s, Iran has for some time developed links to the Taliban and has provided small arms and political backing. By establishing contacts with the Taliban, Iran has undertaken a hedging strategy designed to contain a future Taliban-run Afghanistan,” he added.

Other observers see the Taliban of 2021 as wholly different from the Taliban of 2001, arguing that once in power the militant group will be more pragmatic and less ideological, and strive to meet the Afghan people’s demands.

“If the Taliban take over most of Afghanistan, a likely scenario, they are likely to be more moderate than many people fear. Political parties and religious movements are much more pragmatic when they are in the government than they are in the opposition,” said Gawdat Bahgat, a professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University.

“In both West Asia and the Persian Gulf, Iran has been calling on foreign powers to leave and on regional countries to work together to promote security, stability and economic development. Iran has hosted a dialogue between all Afghan factions,” he told Asia Times.

“Tehran is not an ally of the Taliban; it talks to them because they are a major player. Tehran seeks to maintain ties with all political powers in Afghanistan,” Bahgat added.

Sabir Ibrahimi, a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, believes Iran and other states who have negotiated and worked with the Taliban have lent credence to the movement, but they have done so to secure their own interests.

“Iran has reached out to the Taliban to secure its interests, just like everybody else in the region and beyond. By doing so, not just Iran, but the US and others have given so much legitimacy to the Taliban,” he said.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) and other members of the Taliban arrive to attend an international conference in Moscow on March 18, 2021. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AFP

“This way the worst-case scenario for Afghanistan will be the return of the Islamic Emirate with economic stagnation, isolation, suppression of women and perpetual warfare, but this may not be a worst-case scenario for Tehran as its narrow security interests may be protected,” he added.

Ibrahimi contends those among US Republicans who fear the establishment of a new theocracy in Iran’s neighborhood will embolden Tehran’s mode of Islamic governance may have a point in being concerned, but asks: “Wasn’t Donald Trump planning to bring Mullah Hibatullah, the leader of the Taliban, to Camp David last year?”

“The US has said that they are fine with whatever system of governance Afghans choose for themselves. [Former US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo said this during the signing of the US-Taliban deal last February in Doha and it has been repeated by the current administration.

“This may mean that the US is fine with a theocracy in Afghanistan, one that actually may resemble the Islamic Republic of Iran, but a Sunni version of it.”