A Taliban-led government in Afghanistan is going to be both an opportunity and a strategic threat for Iran. Iran has had covert contact with the Taliban for many years. For instance, following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, Iran allowed entrance to some high-level Taliban figures such as Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Naim Barich. The group was allowed to open an office in Tehran, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) created a training camp in South Khorasan province to train Taliban fighters, providing them with money and large quantities of weapons and explosives.
The goal was to undermine the American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) composed of Americans, British, and Canadians. Unofficially, the Quds Force—the IRGC special unit responsible for extraterritorial operations—smuggled narcotics from Afghanistan to Iran to fund its terror activities. Narcotics trafficking has been a profitable business for the Quds Force, which is known for its extensive ties to drug cartels in South America.
In 2018 the Iranian regime publicized its relationship with the Taliban and took a proactive stance toward peace negotiations in Afghanistan. The regime invited the leaders of the organization to Tehran, and stated that “it would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban.” This new approach prompted observers to argue that the regime was preparing for the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.
However, the official policy of Tehran in Afghanistan has always been “managed instability,” in which the regime extended support to the Taliban enough to complicate US military goals but refrained from supporting the organization’s uncontrolled expansion that may lead to the collapse of the government in Kabul. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, summarized the regime’s thinking as “no one in the region sees a Taliban-dominated government in the interest of regional security.”
Apart from the official policy, the regime was surprised as everyone else about the quick success of the Taliban in defeating Afghan forces and taking over the country.
The regime’s perception was that the Taliban are not as strong as they might appear, and in the absence of the American forces in Afghanistan they would never be able to take over the country. Contrary to all expectations, the Taliban spectacularly seized control of the country, and the Afghan military collapsed quickly even without a fight.
At the moment, there is no indication that the decision-makers in Tehran have a plan to confront the Taliban. President Ebrahim Raisi said Iran was “closely monitoring the evolution of events in Afghanistan” and wants a good relationship with the country. Some reports indicate that the regime’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has applied pressure on media outlets to censor their coverage, specifically to “avoid using terms such as brutality, crime, and other similar words” when referring to the Taliban. Speaker of the Majlis, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, called for lawmakers to refrain from taking an anti-Taliban stance. The Iranian regime has adopted a “wait and see” approach toward the Taliban, driven in part by concern not to antagonize them before it’s clear what policy they are going to adopt toward the Shiite Iran and how are they going to treat the Shiite population in Afghanistan.
In the short term, the Taliban takeover can be an opportunity for the Iranian regime to deflect the world’s attention from the rapid advances it makes in its nuclear program. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accelerated its enrichment of uranium to near weapons-grade (60 percent purity) and had used 257 grams of uranium enriched up to 20 percent U-235 in the form of UF4 to produce 200 grams of uranium metal enriched up to 20 percent U-235 that can be used to make the core of a nuclear weapon.
Taliban atrocities would also deflect the attention of the international community from the serious violation of human rights by the Iranian regime. The regime has a huge record in a wide range of violations of minority rights, gender rights, gay rights, religious rights, civil rights, and political rights. The Iranian regime has been notorious for its torture of prisoners, extrajudicial killings, excessive use of capital punishment, and harsh sentencing guidelines, even for minors, the long and arbitrary detentions of peaceful activists, journalists, students, and human rights defenders, often charged with “acting against national security.”
The Taliban have a worse record of human rights violations. Upon taking control of the provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar, the Taliban issued an order to local religious leaders to provide them with a list of underage girls for “marriage” with Taliban fighters. From 1996 to 2001 when the Taliban ruled the country, women were subjected to persistent human rights violations, public humiliations, beatings, lashes for inappropriate Islamic dressing, denied employment and education, forced to wear the burqa, and forbidden from leaving home without a male “guardian” or mahram. The Taliban return will probably bring back their harsh regime of Islamic governance, and this will help the Iranian regime to continue with its violation of human rights while the world’s attention turns to the Taliban brutality in Afghanistan.
In the long run, however, it is expected that a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan would become a bigger threat to Iran’s national interests than it was before 2001.
First, the Taliban’s foreign policy alignment with Iran’s regional rivals (namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan) is an important factor in Iran’s determining its approach toward Afghanistan. The Taliban have had a long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan. Pakistan’s intelligence agency was instrumental in the creation of the militant group in the 1990s. Afghans who initially joined the group were educated in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan. Pakistan was also one of the countries that recognized the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and the last country to break diplomatic ties with the group. Following 2001, Pakistan has been the principal external patron of the Taliban, providing them with physical sanctuary, money, weapons, training, and logistical support that has been crucial to the Taliban’s ability to wage an effective insurgency against the Afghan state and ISAF forces.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia has had its own long-standing connections with the Taliban. Saudis were the key funder of Taliban religious seminaries and madrassas. Along with Pakistan and the UAE, Saudi Arabia has recognized the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan and supported the Taliban with financial resources. In recent years, the Kingdom has developed a new Afghan policy, channeling funds to the Taliban to keep Iran out of Afghanistan. Iranians believe that Saudis would try to “direct the Taliban to weaken Tehran and divert its attention away from Iraq and other Arab countries.” If the Taliban’s government skews toward the Saudi camp, it would probably prompt Iranians to destabilize Afghanistan.
Taliban’s treatment of the Afghan Shiite population would probably be the second important issue determining Iran’s approach. Approximately 20 percent of the Afghanistan population is Shia, including the Hazaras, who make up around 9 percent of the population of 36 million people. The Taliban consider Shiite Muslims as heretics and has committed atrocities against Afghan Shiites. In 1998, for example, the Taliban carried out one of the worst massacres in the history of Afghanistan and murdered 2,000 Shiite Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif. Between 2000 to 2001, Taliban offensives killed hundreds of Hazaras in Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan. In 2018, the Taliban attacked Uruzgan Province and killed dozens of Shiite Hazara civilians and displaced 500 Hazara families. In November of the same year, Taliban offensives in Jaghori and Malistan districts in Ghanzi Province killed 67 Shiite Hazaras and forced 70 percent of the people living in the Hazara-dominated districts to leave their homes. If the Taliban continues to persecute the Shiites and Hazaras, this will lead to a strong reaction from the Iranian regime, which considers itself as the guardian of Shiites in the world.
Taliban mistreatment of Shiites and Hazaras also risks chaos and instability in Afghanistan that could drive a new tide of refugees to Iran, which is already hosting 2.75 million Afghan refugees. Iran has a 560-mile border with Afghanistan, and it would be hard to prevent refugees from coming in. Iran is very vulnerable to a wave of refugees, which would impose a huge economic burden on Iran’s sanction-ravaged economy. The refugee issue may create friction with the Taliban-ruled government in Afghanistan.
A third issue would be drug trafficking into Iran by the Taliban. Drug smuggling has been the Taliban’s primary source of revenue ($416 million annually), making the group the fifth out of ten richest terrorist organizations. Iran has the highest rate of heroin and opium addiction in the world, where one in 17 is a regular user and 20 percent of the population aged 15-60 is involved in drug abuse. Drug abuse has had a huge socio-economic cost to the country, with more than 4,000 Iranian law enforcers having been killed and 12,000 injured in clashes with drug traffickers since 1979. With such a high rate of drug addiction, the Taliban’s drug trafficking to Iran would trigger more socio-economic problems for the country.
Next in line is the water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan. The two countries have had a growing dispute over the Helmand River, especially since the Afghan government started to construct the Kamal Khan Dam (KKD) on the river. According to the Iranians, the construction of the KKD will cause environmental damage, mainly in Iran’s water-stressed southeastern region bordering Afghanistan. Afghanistan has one of the lowest levels of water storage capacity in the world, with most of its water flowing to Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The water issues have been one of the reasons that prompted Iran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban in the past to derail energy projects such as the Poze Lich Hydropower plant in Ghor, and the Bakhshabad and Salma dams in the neighboring province of Farah and Herat. The construction of these dams would massively boost local energy and water supplies in Afghanistan. Should the Taliban decide to proceed with their construction, this would be a potential source of conflict between Iran and the Taliban-ruled government in the future.
For now, Iran is trying to adopt a cooperative tone. However, there is little doubt that if each of those four challenges emerges, Iran will try to destabilize Afghanistan again by mobilizing its Shiite proxy militia, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, against the Taliban, especially in provinces such as Herat, and Farah, and Nimruz, which share a border with Iran. The Fatemiyoun militia consists of seasoned veterans of the Syrian civil war acting as the proxy militia of the regime’s revolutionary guards. Through its proxy militia, Iran will likely destabilize Afghanistan and assert control over the Shiite provinces.