Tehran has not yet worked out a solution and cannot answer the main question for itself: is it worth recognising the Taliban at all? However, what the Islamic Republic of Iran is exactly interested in is establishing a constructive dialogue with the Taliban, writes Valdai Club expert Farhad Ibrahimov.
The capture of Kabul and the establishment of Taliban power over virtually the entire territory of Afghanistan have added another batch of headaches to Iran’s problems. While Iran has officially welcomed the withdrawal of the Americans from its neighbour to the east, in reality, not everyone in Iran is delighted with the current situation, since they do not fully understand how to interact with the Taliban in Kabul and what, in principle, Iranian-Afghan relations will be like in the medium term.
The history of Iran’s relations with Afghanistan goes back centuries. Tehran is closely monitoring the processes taking place in the neighbouring country for many reasons. First of all, because a huge number of Tajiks live there, whom the Persians see as a brotherly people: they speak the Persian language, using the Dari dialect (Farsi-Kabuli). Almost half of the population of Afghanistan speaks it, not to mention the numerous ethnic groups for which Persian is also their mother tongue. Iran, regardless of the form of government, Shah monarchy or Islamic state, has always considered these peoples to be part of its Iranian world, which should count on Tehran’s support in the event of an existential threat. It is worth noting, however, that the overwhelming majority of Persian-speakers in Afghanistan are Sunni Muslims. Shiism, according to various estimates, is only practiced by 9 to 17% of the population of Afghanistan. Basically, several smaller ethnic groups are committed to Shiism — the Persian-speaking Hazaras and the Turkic-speaking Kizilbash. Despite the fact that Iran is the centre of the Shiite Islamic world, the Iranian authorities do not divide their kindred peoples into Sunnis and Shiites, the supranational factor prevails here.
After the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan lost power in 1992, Iran willingly began to take steps to promote its interests in the neighbouring republic. The coming to power of the Mujahedeen extremists only strengthened the desire of the Iranians to rally their kindred peoples within Afghanistan, who united within the Northern Alliance, capable of repelling the radicals. The Taliban, which was created in 1994 and established its power over the country in 1996, proclaiming the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, saw in neighbouring Iran a great threat, which must be immediately combated. That is why the Taliban’s repressive apparatus began to mercilessly kill the Shiite Hazaras, executing them without investigation or even without a Sharia court, as well as all those who were related to the Northern Alliance and could be potential supporters of the ideas of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1998, there was another incident that could have sparked a war between Iran and the Taliban. The Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and executed all nine Iranian citizens who were there — eight diplomats and one journalist. Tehran then stated that the Taliban would be brought to account, but did not dare to conduct a military operation.
However, the Iranians decided to respond to this action by the Taliban in a different way. During the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Iranian al-Quds special forces led by Qasem Soleimani began to work closely with the Americans and in fact helped in every way they could. The then-moderate and reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami believed that this step would simultaneously achieve understanding in relations with the United States. However, a few months later, President George Bush Jr. included Iran into the “axis of evil” and thus the Iranian-American cooperation in Afghanistan was terminated.
In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of Iran. Without thinking twice, he decided to start a dialogue with the Taliban, who, in principle, at that time had lost their influence, but continued an underground war. According to the media, Iran began to work seriously with the Taliban and, as a result, was able to achieve serious results in the form of the loyalty of two authoritative leaders of the Taliban — Hibatullah Akhundzada and Akhtar Mansur. They began to frequently visit Iran and receive all kinds of help from Tehran — from money and weapons to instructions. Subsequently, there were reports in the media that Iran was in contact with the Taliban, but the officials of the Islamic Republic stated that their relationship with the Taliban did not entail providing political or military support to this group. The Americans began to accuse Iran of supplying weapons to the Taliban. In Washington, documents were presented, testifying to the provision of military assistance to the Taliban by Iran in the form of weapons and military equipment supplies.
The question arose, why could Iran need all this? First, the Iranians know what is behind the Taliban, who finances and supports them. First of all, this is Pakistan, which has its own views on the region and dreams of neutralising Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which submitted huge funds to support the Taliban, so that they, in turn, would not let the Iranians “sleep well”. Second, Iranian officials understood that they simply would not be able to cope with another war, and it could be better to agree with the Taliban. Accordingly, the Iranians took a second path and received feedback from the Taliban, which of course caused a nervous reaction in Islamabad. As a result, in 2016 Taliban leader Akhtar Mansur was killed in a drone attack in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US military said that at that time Mansur was returning from Iran, and as evidence presented to the media his passport with an Iranian visa. Thus, the Pakistanis made it clear to the Taliban that their outlined cooperation with Iran is fraught with consequences. However, this did not stop the Taliban. So, in January 2019 the Iranian Foreign Ministry officially announced a meeting between Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and a Taliban delegation. The Taliban confirmed that these talks were being held with Iranian officials.
In recent years, Iran has openly expressed dissatisfaction with the long-term stay of the United States in Afghanistan and has not abandoned its attempts to expand its influence in the region. In practice, Tehran’s policy towards Afghanistan, which is based on economic cooperation, was generally perceived positively in the neighbouring country, and found support among the Taliban. However, we have to admit that the internal Iranian views on the Taliban are seriously different. Tehran still has not developed a unified approach towards the Taliban. Even among the highest-ranking politicians in the inner circle of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, there are different opinions as to whether it is worth recognising the Taliban regime in Kabul as the legitimate authority in Afghanistan. Some Ayatollahs even urge to wait for a convenient moment when one of the major powers, for example, China, the European Union or Russia, will agree to this. In any case, the weakened reformers in Iran think so. The ruling conservatives, led by President Ebrahim Raisi, have a slightly different position. Despite their conservatism, they look at the world realistically, understanding that there is a high degree of probability that the Taliban will rule the neighbouring country for a long time, therefore it is necessary to come to an agreement now so as not to be late. It is not for nothing that the very next day after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, President Raisi announced the benefits of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, actually supporting the position of the Taliban.
According to the Iranian president, “America’s military defeat and its withdrawal must become an opportunity to restore life, security and a durable peace in Afghanistan.” And this despite the fact that on August 5, 11 days before the fall of Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani participated in the inauguration ceremony of Iranian President Raisi. Both presidents held talks in which Ebrahim Raisi assured his Afghan counterpart of support for the government in Kabul and “efforts to promote a peaceful settlement”. Moreover, Raisi stressed that Iran supports the legitimate government and the “right of the Afghan people”. Surely, Raisi could not have imagined that in less than two weeks Kabul would be in the hands of the Taliban, and Ghani himself would flee the country without making even the slightest attempt to resist. In April the then Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif insisted that Iran would not allow the Taliban to seize Afghanistan and return the country to the nineties. Zarif is not a cabinet minister now, but the new Iranian government is faced with the task of reaching an agreement with the Taliban. It is not for nothing that Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi arrived in Iran a few days ago. The Iranian media did not particularly cover this visit, only dryly noting that the Afghan issue was raised at the meeting with President Raisi. This issue was also raised by the Iranian Foreign Minister on the sidelines of the recent Baghdad Conference on Partnership and Cooperation.
It is possible that in Iran, behind closed doors, broad discussions are taking place on whether it is worth recognising the Taliban regime or not. The aforementioned Ahmadinejad, who laid the foundation for the Taliban’s communication with Tehran, now opposes any establishment of contacts and openly condemns the Iranian government. In all likelihood, Ahmadinejad himself is playing to the domestic audience in order to raise his own rating among those strata of the population who openly hate the Taliban. We must admit that millions of people in Iran treat the Taliban extremely negatively and believe that their country should not have any contacts with the group.
The Taliban themselves are trying to behave less radically towards Iran than they could have allowed themselves 20 years ago. For example, the Taliban ensured the safety of Shia Muslims at the Ashura ceremony in Kabul. Previously, during the days of mourning, Shiite groups were regularly attacked by Sunni radicals. Law enforcement agencies during the Ghani presidency did not particularly react to these incidents, only promising that this would not happen again. However, subsequently, there were cases of mass attacks against Shia Muslims. Local residents themselves noted that the events dedicated to the Ashura commemoration this year were held in greater safety than ever, so they did not even take weapons with them, trusting the Taliban. It is not known how the Taliban will behave next time, but this fact is already indicative for Iran. The Taliban themselves understand that the Iranians will not remain silent if the Shiites are repressed and killed. All the Taliban want now is international recognition and building mutually beneficial relations with their neighbours, including Iran. Tehran has not yet worked out a solution and cannot answer the main question for itself: is it worth recognising the Taliban at all? However, what the Islamic Republic of Iran is exactly interested in is establishing a constructive dialogue with the Taliban. At this stage, the Iranians and the Taliban will definitely be able to come to an agreement.