Nothing in contemporary international history comes close to the monumental geostrategic transitions that transpired post-9/11 attacks. Even Iran, which has traditionally shared hostile relations with the United States, purveyed public notices in support of grieving Americans.
The Islamic Republic’s enthusiasm to join the United Nations-led coalition in Afghanistan and offer tangible support to the US marked a sharp shift in their brinkmanship. Iran was ready to forgo its long-lived anti-US campaigns entailing “death to America” chants because this was seen as a unique opportunity by Tehran to settle their historical scores with the Taliban.
Contrast this with Iran’s reaction to the US withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in August 2021. Iran did not protest, nor did it react inimically to the Taliban's subsequent takeover of the country.
In fact, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi claimed that the US exit from Kabul had granted them an opportunity to restore durable peace with their eastern neighbour. It is also noteworthy how during the August 2021 transition, when most countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and India ceased their diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, Iran risked a great deal by keeping its embassy in Kabul fully functional. This was in line with Tehran’s post-9/11 ambivalent Afghanistan policy, where it did not appear to take a clear stand – whether to firmly oppose the US, its long-time foe, or stand against the Taliban, a Sunni militant organisation which had for long persecuted Shia population in the country.
Following the withdrawal of the US forces, Iran is treading a tightrope between nurturing its traditional allies in Afghanistan and the newly formed Taliban government. The two Muslim majority countries have historically endured a complicated relationship under the realm of ethnic conflicts and uncertain regimes. Iran’s relations with Afghanistan changed for the worse with the rise of Sunni radicalism, promoted by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the region. While the Shia-dominated Iran had always been uncomfortable with the Sunni extremist Taliban monopolising absolute power, Iran-Afghan relations met with severe constraints in 1998 when the Taliban captured the Northern Alliance capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, whilst killing 11 Iranians, including diplomats. Livid at this targeted massacre, Iran retaliated by deploying thousands of troops on the northern border of Afghanistan.
Despite the obvious Talibani enmity towards Iran’s Shiite Muslims and the apparent areas of contentions over land borders, trade deficits, drug trafficking, refugee movements, and water security amongst other traditional and non-traditional threats, Iran is surprisingly much closer to the Taliban today than in the 1990s. Hence, locating this counterintuitive shift in Iran’s policy towards the Taliban after the 9/11 terror attacks demands a relook
Tracing Shifts in Tehran-Taliban Ties Post 9/11
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in 2001, Iran greased the wheels for unseating the Taliban from Kabul. Tehran readily dispensed important intelligence reports and expressed its aspirations of jointly congregating a post-Taliban Afghan government with the US. Specifically, Iran provided the US with maps denoting Talibani camps, offered to train newly inducted Afghan army personnel and made rapid arrests from the al-Qaeda grouping. Additionally, Iran rallied for national unity and banished mujahedeen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from its mainland. At this point, Iran and the US seemingly stood shoulder-to-shoulder for the so-called “nation-building” in Afghanistan.
However, Iran soon found itself reassessing its role in the invasion led by the US and its allies. The US’s 2003 Iraq invasion underpinned the root cause of Iranian anxiety.
Iran felt threatened by the US invasions and started swinging a double-edged sword in its neighbouring borders by passively extending support to the Taliban and restricting funds for training Afghan army officials.
Therefore, the reports of Iran-based military equipment flooding Talibani camps did not sit well with the US. Soon after, US President George W Bush publicly docketed Iran as “the axis of evil” and called them out for their shoddy attempt at development in Afghanistan. In this regard, little did Iran realise that the consequences of their missteps in Afghanistan and subtle alliance with the Taliban will spill trouble into their homeland.
Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan
Iran Initially batted for the unseating of the Taliban but soon veered off after keenly observing the regime of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which was incompetent and riddled with corruption. At this juncture, Iran in 2007 decided to adopt strategic duplicity in Afghanistan wherein it channelised the riskiest form of back-door diplomacy. Iran attempted a balancing act of supplying bags of cash to the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai and at the same time endowing the Taliban with arms and other incentives for shooting the US troops. Similarly, for the Taliban, a détente with Iran worked well as they relied lesser on Pakistan, who they believe was likely to fall under the US’ pressure.
Such underhandedness indicates confusion and misalignment between Iran’s national interests and its foreign policy. Undoubtedly, Tehran realises the downside of betting on the Taliban, which brings with it intolerance, security issues, violence, narcotrafficking, and economic drainage.
Thus, stability in Afghanistan is in Iran’s rooting interest. In this regard, the foreign presence of the US in its neighbourhood is a risk that Iran is unwilling to take. Iran possibly sees defending against the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban as more “appropriate” than entertaining Israeli and US forces in their vicinity.
In this quest, Tehran is astonishingly willing to associate with atheist actors like Caracas and Pyongyang and other Sunni jihadist groups like Hamas and even al-Qaeda. Ultimately, the Islamic Republic’s idea of durability in the region is to garner support against the common adversary, the United States.
Another reason for Tehran adopting its contradictory Taliban strategy stems mostly from its apprehension that political upheaval and financial hardship in Afghanistan would help boost the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which Iran regards as a more serious security threat than the Taliban.
Iran and Taliban: An Uneasy Relationship
One year into the newly formed Taliban regime and Iran is yet to experience a substantial stroke of luck in the peace and security arena. In contrast, Iran and Afghanistan have faced increased Afghan refugee flows, drug trafficking, a rise in social tensions, water treaty disputes, and border conflicts. In this milieu, political analysts argue that if Iran fails to implement long-sighted capacity-building policies with the Taliban, and the latter continues with the persecution of Afghanistan’s minority Hazara Shias, there is a high chance of an armed conflict escalating between the two nations.
Iran has not officially recognised the Taliban regime. Although, Iran appears to be rebroadcasting its past strategy of placing passive bets on the latter. Evident from the recent news of Iran ordering its journalists to not cavil at the Taliban’s actions. All in all, Iran seems eager to establish long-standing ties with its eastern neighbour possibly because the actualisation of the aforementioned challenges is the biggest threat to it today. However, the Islamic Republic’s strategy of playing the double-edged sword may not serve its regional interests well in the long term. As a time-honoured neighbour, Iran holds considerable influence over Kabul’s sociopolitical climate with the ability to introduce enduring peace.
(Samriddhi Roy is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3), United Service Institute of India (USI), New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)