Iran’s sinking investment in the Taliban
Diplomatic niceties aside, Iran has been criticizing the Taliban in the public domain over the past few days. Only a few might have seen this coming because, even before the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital last month, Iran’s leadership and its state-controlled media had been in celebratory mood. However, Tehran did beef up border security, but only as a defensive move. Instead of helping the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces with weapons, manpower or covering fire, Iran’s troops acted as silent spectators who witnessed the fait accompli unfold. Iran let hundreds of Afghan military personnel escape with their weapons to safety in its territory, only for them to be returned after the Taliban announced a general amnesty.
Speaking to pre-Ashura gatherings, the Qom-aligned Afghan Shiite clerics advised nervous followers’ restraint and good faith, which was duly reciprocated. The Taliban allowed the gatherings across the country, while attending and even addressing some major congregations in Shiite-majority cities like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.
The Iranian jubilations hardly lasted a fortnight before the Taliban encircled the Panjshir Valley, the last remaining pocket of resistance. The mountainous 34th province was fabled as an insurmountable natural fort no one could conquer. Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s vice president, had fled and Ahmad Massoud, the defiant son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, was nowhere to be seen. The armed resistance against the Taliban collapsed with few signs of revival, as snowy winters are starting to set into the country’s northern mountains. Iran’s Foreign Ministry furiously reacted to the Taliban’s takeover by military means instead of dialogue. To add a bit of background, the late Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Panjshir Valley was the driving force behind the Northern Alliance during the 1980s and 1990s. The Taliban knew that Iran, along with certain other regional players, would use the same territory to keep it in check. Tehran was instrumental in setting up the Northern Alliance, which reflects Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity with no sectarian considerations.
In the Taliban’s temporary Cabinet, there is no representation of the group’s Mashhad shoura, which Tehran has been babysitting for years. Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, rejected the new Cabinet, alleging that the new Afghan leadership “ignored the need for an inclusive government.” Shamkhani also repeated the Iranian mantras of “foreign interference” and the “use of military means instead of dialogue.” These mantras are rather hypocritical, as Iran has repeatedly intervened in the sovereign affairs of regional countries and preferred military escalation over dialogue, as witnessed in Syria and Yemen.
According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal report, the country now complaining of foreign interference was paying Taliban fighters a monthly salary of $580, besides “providing 82mm mortars, light machine guns, AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and materials for making roadside bombs.”
In light of realities on the ground, Iran’s pragmatic policy of partnership with the Taliban was made without considering significant internal and external factors. Tehran did not weigh up its new-found working relationship with the US, even after Washington’s troops withdrew from Afghanistan. The humanitarian support from China, Pakistan and the Gulf states to Afghanistan was also not factored in. Until now, Iran has not joined the humanitarian bridge to Afghanistan, despite the country facing severe food and medicine shortages.
Tehran’s investment in Afghanistan is not limited to appeasing the Taliban, but has also extended to building rail tracks and roads in the south and connecting the country to the India-run Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman. Since so much is at stake, has the Iran-Taliban partnership, which was built on pragmatic hospitality and realpolitik, fizzled out or is Iran hedging its bets? The Iranian leadership rarely reacts in an erratic and emotive fashion. For a country overconfident of its outreach and foreign assets, such reactions are becoming much more frequent. Tehran’s response to the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh was identical to its response in the aftermath of Kabul falling to the Taliban. However, Iran soon adjusted its policy in view of realities on the ground.
Tehran’s policy of partnership with the group was made without considering significant internal and external factors.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
In Afghanistan, Iran has substantial assets to upset the Taliban’s monopoly over power. Hashd Al-Shi’i, a new militia it has founded, can be activated whenever Tehran sees its red lines regarding the Hazara community and its overall vital interests in the country transgressed. The militia is ideologically indoctrinated, militarily trained and better equipped and disciplined than many others inside Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will go after this militia while also chasing and eliminating the remnants of the National Resistance Front, warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s militia, and others.
Beyond its own territory, Tehran likes to champion the rights of minorities, women and the media.
If the Taliban do not budge under Iran’s pressure, Tehran may cut off oil supplies to the landlocked country, prompting public protest against the new Cabinet. However, Iran refusing to sell petroleum to Kabul would be an own goal for Tehran due to its economy being in dire straits. Which option Iran chooses will depend on whether it wants to merely limit the Taliban or remove the group from power entirely.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami