Iran, and the Taliban’s Answers to Three Questions

By: Shujauddin Amini

Since the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan, Iran has had a warmer relationship with them than usual. Iranian embassies and consulates in Afghanistan are open, and the Afghan embassy in Tehran has been handed over to the Taliban despite any reactions. In order to keep the Taliban content, Iran has not shown much favor to their opposing forces, unlike in the past. However, recently, the friendship between Iran and the Taliban has weakened somewhat due to verbal tension between the two sides over the Helmand River. The Iranian side has accused the Taliban of recklessness and breach of commitment, and the Taliban have responded by citing drought and lack of water as an excuse.

Regarding the relationship between Iran and the Taliban, there are three important questions to consider:

1- What are the approaches of Iran (government and non-governmental forces) towards the Taliban?
2- What is the official policy of the Iranian government towards the Taliban?
3- Is it possible to maintain a friendly relationship between Iran and the Taliban? Answers to each of these questions are provided below:

  1. What are the approaches in Iran toward the Taliban?

In Iran, there are three approaches to the Taliban, encompassing forces both within and outside of the government:

  • Confrontational approach: This approach views the Taliban as an unreliable force that poses a threat to Iran’s national interests, and thus seeks to resolve the issue through the imposition of pressure rather than interaction. The Taliban are seen as having many similarities to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K), making it both impossible and undesirable to differentiate between them. This approach advises the Iranian government not to put all their eggs in the Taliban’s basket and to pay less attention to the opposing forces of this group. Supporters of this approach in the most optimistic state suggest that, if the Iranian government does not confront the Taliban with force, they will at least maintain the balance between this group and its opposing forces. This approach perceives antagonism between the Taliban and the “Islamic Revolution”, rather than harmony. The “Reformist” forces and the cultural field in Iran are proponents of this approach. In 1998, when Iranian diplomats were killed by the Taliban in Balkh province, the Reformists were in power and in favor of a military attack on Afghanistan, which had the approval of Iran’s National Security Council, but the leadership opposed this decision.
  • Engagement approach: This approach is in stark contrast to the first, which suggests that engaging with the Taliban is a viable solution and that by continuing such a policy, the Taliban’s nature can be changed. Supporters of this approach are opposed to confrontation with the Taliban for two reasons: first, the anti-American sentiment is strong and pervasive in this approach, and it is believed that the Taliban are a force that fights against the United States. Second, it is believed that the United States and its Western and regional allies are attempting to draw Iran into a conflict with the Taliban. This approach claims that the United States has failed in Afghanistan and is now trying to make Iran suffer in order to make up for its failure. These two factors have led supporters of this approach to advocate for avoiding confrontation with the Taliban. Furthermore, in this approach, the Taliban are seen as a group that does not oppose the Islamic Revolution and can be brought into the axis of resistance against the United States through interaction. This approach is mainly supported by “fundamentalist” forces.
  • Realistic/pragmatic approach: This approach is part of the government’s strategy, which does not prioritize absolute interaction or confrontation with the Taliban. Instead, the internal conditions of Afghanistan, the realities of the international environment, major global and regional games, and the behavior of allies and adversaries are more important considerations than the Taliban’s ideological nature and ideological differences with this group. National interests, national security, and preventing the spread of crisis in the borders according to regional and global requirements are the basis of Iran’s foreign policy behavior, not the Taliban’s ideological nature. Unlike previous approaches, this approach does not assume interaction or confrontation with the Taliban, but rather it is the ground realities on both sides of the border, the region, and the world that suggest Iran should interact or confront. This approach is currently receiving more attention from Iran’s foreign policy apparatus than the previous two approaches.

2. What is the official policy of the Iranian government regarding the Taliban?

Iran has adopted two strategies in its dealings with the Taliban: declaration and implementation. These same two strategies have been employed not only against the Taliban, but also against previous governments.

  • Declarative policy: A declarative policy includes components that Iranian officials express in diplomatic language to portray Iran as a good and benevolent neighbor to Afghanistan, without necessarily limiting these components.
  • It appears that Iran does not impose a particular form of governance on the Taliban. Even if it had the desire to do so, it is unable to due to the fact that the concept of Velayat Faqih is not accepted in Afghanistan. Iranian officials have repeatedly declared that Iran supports any type of government that the people of Afghanistan desire. This stance of Iran can be seen as respecting the principle of “right to self-determination”.
  • Iran has repeatedly expressed its opposition to interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. This stance can be interpreted as adhering to the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries”.
  • Practical policy: This covers the actions that Iran’s foreign policy apparatus has taken and is currently taking towards Afghanistan and the Taliban.
  • Coming to terms with the “established government” in Afghanistan is one aspect of Iran’s practical policy towards the Taliban. Iranian authorities have stated that, in accordance with the principle of neighborliness, they must deal with the “established government” in Afghanistan, regardless of its form and nature. Iran has only deviated from this principle on two occasions: during the government of the leftists and the first rule of the Taliban. It appears that this time, Iran will deal with the Taliban quietly, regardless of the type of government they form, as they are the ruling force in Afghanistan. Iranian officials believe that it is possible to manage the “changed” Taliban and prevent instability in their surroundings. In this regard, Iran’s position can be described as giving importance to the principle of “geopolitics”.
  • Iran is supportive of the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan, one that includes all groups and movements. It could be argued that Iran is looking out for its own interests, and that the Iranian authorities view the provision of Iran’s interests in Afghanistan as being contingent upon the presence of forces aligned with them in power. Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan is geared towards allowing forces that share identity, religion, and language with the country to have a share in power. Since its involvement in Afghanistan, Iran has been supportive of political processes that are inclusive. This position of Iran can be seen as giving importance to the principle of “geo-culture”. Furthermore, Iran views the creation of an inclusive government as beneficial for political stability in Afghanistan, as it perceives instability in its surroundings to be detrimental.
  • Iran is strongly opposed to the presence and influence of major powers in Afghanistan, believing it to be a threat to its security. The Iranian authorities believe that the more influence major powers have in Afghanistan, the less influence Iran will have. Consequently, Iran did not welcome the presence of the Soviet Union or the United States in Afghanistan, and supported the Jihadi forces to drive the Soviet Union out and the Taliban to drive the United States out. Iran was also against the signing of theStrategic Pact and theSecurity Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, which would have extended the United States presence in Afghanistan and the Doha Peace Process. Iran is still demanding that the Taliban not fall into the United States arms and not facilitate this country‘s influence in Afghanistan again, due to Afghanistan‘sgeostrategic importance.

3. Is it possible to maintain a cordial relationship between Iran and the Taliban? The answer to this question isNo“, as it is not feasible for Iran and the Taliban to remain amicable due to various reasons.

  • The Taliban are a Sunni ideological group that is not compatible with Shia ideology.
  • Iran and the Taliban are in disagreement regarding the water rights of the Helmand River, and Iranian authorities have determined that the Taliban are not inclined to grant Iran its rights.
  • Iran is wary of the Taliban, suspecting that they may realign with the United States, which would be a source of concern for Iran.

It is not necessarily the case that Iran will enter into a military confrontation with the Taliban due to the impossibility of maintaining a friendly relationship between the two. In recent times, Iran has become more comfortable in the Middle East and Sunni Arab countries, and is attempting to put pressure on the Taliban to meet its demands. However, this pressure has not had the desired effect in Iran‘s opinion. Iran is wary of Western countries and is taking care not to give them an excuse to intervene by engaging with the Taliban. The tension between Iran and the Taliban will not exceed verbal tension, and Iran will avoid military conflict and excessive confrontation with the Taliban. The Taliban do not appear to have a desire for a military conflict with Iran, as they are seeking recognition and there are a large number of immigrants in Iran who are dissatisfied with the Taliban, and could be used by Iran against them. The Taliban are aware of this risk.