Enemy of my enemy: Iran and the Taliban
7 Oct 2021|

The Taliban victory and the American exit from Afghanistan have shuffled the pack in the region in multiple ways. Several of Afghanistan’s neighbours with major stakes in the country have reacted to these developments with ambivalence. Pakistan, the Taliban’s major external source of support and its primary advocate in the international community, has exulted over the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan because it serves its strategic objectives vis-à-vis its nemesis India.

At the same time, the Pakistani military and civilian establishments have met these developments with a degree of trepidation. They’re worried that the Taliban’s return to power could reenergise the extremist Islamist elements in Pakistan that are committed to changing the country’s political system to a ‘pristine’ Islamic one. The military is especially concerned that the Taliban would extend support to the Pakistani Taliban who have fought major battles against the Pakistani army in the past and could once again pose a major challenge to the country’s security.

Similarly, the Chinese and the Russians are happy to see the Americans humiliated because it undermines Washington’s status, thus strengthening their standing internationally. However, both Beijing and Moscow are concerned about the impact of the Taliban’s victory on their own restive Muslim populations in Xinjiang and the Caucuses. Insurgent groups consisting of Uyghurs and Chechens are active in Afghanistan and have received support from the Taliban and other Islamist formations. Rebel groups from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states allied to Russia have also found succour in Afghanistan in areas controlled by the Taliban.

Iran falls in the same category as China and Russia but with a major difference. While China and Russia perceive the US as a competitor, Iran sees America as an unquestionably hostile power—‘the Great Satan’—committed to not only destroying the regime but also driving the nation into destitution and incapacitating the state to such a degree that it can’t assume its rightful place in the comity of nations. It also perceives the US to be the proxy for Israel, Iran’s primary regional adversary, which is bent on destroying any semblance of Iranian nuclear capability by launching clandestine attacks on Iranian nuclear installations and assassinating its nuclear scientists.

This is why Iran has been far more enthusiastic than either China or Russia in welcoming the Taliban victory. It’s not because Tehran loves the Taliban but because they drove US forces out of Iran’s neighbourhood. The Iranian regime believes that the abrupt and disorderly US withdrawal is bound to affect America’s credibility among its allies, principally Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are Iran’s major adversaries in the Gulf, thus weakening their resolve to compete with it in the region.

Iran also perceives the American withdrawal as a sign of President Joe Biden’s weakness, from which it could benefit during the continuing negotiations aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action abandoned by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in 2018. The new Iranian government under President Ebrahim Raisi has already made clear that, while it’s willing to return to the limits imposed on its nuclear program by the JCPOA, it will do so only if its three principal demands are met. The US must immediately lift all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, must give an ironclad undertaking that it won’t unilaterally withdraw from the agreement in the future, and must not seek to tie any other issues, such as Iran’s missile program or its regional policies, to the revival of the JCPOA. Iran is in no hurry to return to the agreement. It is in fact using the threat of an imminent nuclear breakout to pressure the Biden administration to accept its preconditions for a return to the JCPOA.

Positive Iran–Taliban relations could also contribute to weakening the American bargaining position on the JCPOA. While Tehran may be underplaying its religio-ideological antipathy towards the Taliban, it hasn’t forgotten the atrocities committed on the Shia Hazara population under the first Taliban regime. It also hasn’t forgotten the Taliban’s massacre of 10 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, an event that brought Iran and Afghanistan to the brink of war. However, the two parties’ shared objective of forcing the US out of Afghanistan has trumped Iran’s ideological hostility towards and religious detestation of the Taliban.

Iran’s pragmatic approach to the Taliban is also driven by its interest in securing its eastern borders against drug traffickers, refugees and, above all, hostile groups such as Baluchi irredentists. Tehran sees the Taliban regime as indispensable in providing such security. Iran is also keen on selling fuel to Afghanistan and has in fact ramped up supplies since the Taliban capture of Kabul. Finally, Iran considers its presence in Afghanistan to be essential for countering what it sees as the malign influence of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on the Taliban regime.

The Iranian policy of live and let live when it comes to the Taliban is a part of its larger regional policy of consolidating and expanding its influence to ensure its security and keep hostile powers at bay. It has been doing so across its western borders, where Iranian-financed and -trained militias have become significant political and military players in Iraq. Hezbollah, Iran’s oldest ally in the Arab world, plays an even larger political role in Lebanon and has become an indispensable partner in any governing coalition in the country. The Taliban may not be as pliant a partner as the Iraqi Shia militias, but maintaining good relations will provide Iran with much greater security on its eastern borders and constrain other powers such as China, Russia and Pakistan from harming Iranian interests in Afghanistan, a country strategically located at the junction of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.