Iran's Position on Afghanistan after the Withdrawal of the U.S Forces from the Country

EPC | 16 Aug 2021

Over the few days that followed the withdrawal of the U.S troops from Afghanistan the political and military landscape in the country has witnessed dramatic changes. Tehran has been very cautious in dealing with the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan while Iranian decision-makers circles appear divided on how to deal the situation in their neighbor country. Iran shares more than a 850-kilometer-long rugged border with Afghanistan which has represented a main source of concern for the Iranian regime for the past decades. 

This paper sheds light on Iran’s position vis-à-vis the latest developments in Afghanistan and emerging chances and challenges. 

Two Extreme Views on Taliban

The Iranian regime has welcomed the withdrawal of the U.S troops from Afghanistan and considered it a victory for the resistance and the Iranian project for removing the U.S military presence close to Iran. Washington’s decision took place amidst the escalation of differences between Iran and the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. These differences have pushed Tehran to approach Taliban as a means to pressure Ghani’s government. Moreover, Iran has held several rounds of talks with Taliban leaders and hosted negotiations between various actors in Afghanistan which can be seen as a significant development in bilateral relations.

News reports show that Taliban has been able capture large swathes of the country in few days with the possible collapse of the Afghani government and the access of the movement to power in the country. Although, the Iranian decision-makers ostensibly has welcomed the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan, they face a very worrying situation for several reasons including: Taliban’s possible control of Afghanistan as the last experience of Taliban access to power did not bode well and posed many threats and challenges to the Iranian interests in that country. Moreover, in case that happens again this may lead to the creation of some trouble spots close to the Iranian-Afghani borders, not to mention other multiple economic and security consequences.

Taliban’s control of border crossings with Iran has intensified the latter’s political and security concerns. Despite the latest steps made by Taliban to assure Afghanistan’s neighbors including Iran, the regime in Tehran is deeply concerned about Taliban being in power as a movement with an extremist ideology and a rival to institution of Wilayat al Faqih. Tehran’s fears from the Taliban movement are based on the Iranian perception of the movement, its nature and the complicated dealings with it.

As such, views in Iran were divided on how to deal with the new developments in Afghanistan. The first camp supports the idea of rapprochement with Taliban and finding ways to deal with it as a fait accompli. The other camp, however, totally opposes this idea calling for adopting a tough position that rejects the control of Taliban over Afghanistan. 

The Idea of Rapprochement with Taliban

The Idea of rapprochement with Taliban has already dominated Iranian decision-making circles, as supporters of this trend argue that Taliban movement now has some sort of legitimacy and a significant representation in society. Therefore, and given the qualitative shift that took place in the nature of the movement, there is a need to deal with it.

Over the past years, various Iranian sovereign institutions have entered into dialogue with Taliban. These meetings were held in secret at the beginning. Tehran received Taliban’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in 2016 who had been involved in round of talks with the Iranian authorities for two months before he was killed in an air raid after he left the Iranian territories, according to some sources. Then, meetings between the two sides were held openly in 2021, as when Iran hosted a round of dialogue with some Taliban political leaders in last June in which Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, was involved. That can be seen as a shift from the stage of coordination with the movement to the stage of adopting the diplomacy of containment with it.

Some decision-making institutions in Tehran have even shown sympathy with Taliban. For example, Ahmad Nadri, member of the national security committee in Iran’s Parliament, stated that Tehran needs to reconsider its positions on the movement as a deeply-rooted movement with broad social base. Another IRGC military leader has pointed to the joint interests of Iran and Taliban represented in opposing the U.S. military presence in the region. Kayhan Daily ,linked to the Office of Supreme Leader,  as the newspaper that represents the official view of Iran’s decision-making circles has referred to the qualitative shift that happened in Taliban movement highlighting the latter’s stands that assure such a shift. In an interview with Tasnim News agency close to IRGC Taliban’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, stated that “the movement would guarantee that the Shiite community would not be subject to discrimination”. He added that the movement has changed its orientations and is witnessing radical changes compared to what it had been in 2000.

In addition to the aforementioned radical change in the movement’s orientations, there are other reasons that make Iran soften its tough stand towards Taliban, open up to the movement and enhance coordination and cooperation between the two sides. These include the necessity to prevent the rise of ISIS in the regions close to the Iranian borders as the “alternative movement” in the country. Moreover, cooperation with the movement will support Tehran’s project of ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, not to mention the fact that Iran can invest on its relations with Taliban to resolve outstanding issues between the two neighboring countries.  

Rejecting Rapprochement with Taliban

There is another view that rejects the previous approach and calls on Iran to be more cautious in dealing with Taliban. This view has a strong resonance both in the government and IRGC. Some prominent officials in Iran’s diplomatic corps argue that cooperation with Taliban will remain difficult. Iran’s  Javan newspaper close to IRGC also criticized the previous government’s stand on opening up to the movement and its decision to receive an official delegation from Taliban at the Foreign Ministry.

At the field level, Tehran has shown reservations regarding the latest developments on the ground and the rise of the movement in the country while it is trying to soften its stand in this regard. In this context, we can refer to Tehran’s decision to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Mazar Sharif despite Taliban’s pledge to respect foreign diplomatic missions in the country. Moreover, Iran has put the army units and IRGC forces on the Eastern borders with Afghanistan on the state of maximum alert and sent military reinforcements there after the movement took control of Herat border crossing. Reinforcing the 5th air defense base and 14th air base that follow the regular army in Mashhad city with combat equipment including assault helicopters, reconnaissance airplanes and two fighter squadrons of F-5 and Mirage F. 1EQ/BQ is seen as a move to close ranks in case of any emergency with Taliban taking full control of Afghanistan in the near future.

Those who support this conservative approach towards the movement argue that Taliban as a Sunni Salafist movement has not changed much despite all the efforts it made to change its image as the stands it declared went contrary to the actions it has taken over the last period of time. They also refer to the rapprochement between Taliban and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (as a fact that confirms Taliban’s commitment to the Wahhabi Salafist school), maintaining that there is a Saudi desire to create a trouble spot on the borders close to Iran like “A new Yemen” in which Tehran is involved.

Consequently, Tehran has adopted an ambivalent attitude towards Taliban. It can be said that from the one hand Iran’s regime is encouraged to cooperate with Taliban and reconsider its assessment of the movement by the fact that the movement is an ally in implementing Tehran’s project of reducing the American presence in the region (Resisting the U.S. presence in the region as one of the regime’s strategic objectives) and pressuring the government in Afghanistan. On the other, Tehran needs to deal carefully with the movement given its well-known ideological attitudes, and its close relations with some regional powers competing with Iran, not to mention the security repercussions of Taliban taking control of its Eastern neighbor. 

Affecting points in Iran’s vision of Taliban movement

There are some political determinants that have a significant impact on the political decision made by the Iranian regime regarding the growing role of Taliban in Afghanistan away from ideological and strategic considerations. These include:

  • The aggravating security dilemma in Afghanistan and the possibility of Taliban seizing control of the country can lead to an increase in the movement of refugees towards Iran even though the country is still considered as a transition station rather than a final destination of those refugees. While the last two years witnessed a drop in the number of refugees to the country which is estimated between 1.5 to 2.5 million due to the improvement of the security situation in Afghanistan and the deteriorating economic situation in Iran, any security turmoil can reverse the course particularly with the increasing fears of the Shiite community that Taliban may take control of the country. Effectively, an increasing number of Afghan refugees started to move in the direction of the border crossings with Iran, particularly after Taliban fighters seized control of  Nimroz province while the Iranian authorities tried to keep them inside the Afghan territories. The increase in the number of Afghan refugees will add economic burden to Iran and will be a major source of security and social concerns. The unstable security situation in the border region with Afghanistan is also another major concern for the Iranian regime as this would increase weapons and drugs smuggling not to mention its repercussions on the security situation in Baluchistan province.
  • Economically, the instability in Afghanistan due to possible civil war will have a negative impact on Iran’s economy because this would block Tehran’s exports to Afghanistan or at least lower their volume. The value of Iranian exports to Afghanistan last year stood at $ 2.3 billion (other sources indicate that these exports stabilized at $4 billion) ; thereby, putting Kabul as the fifth top destination of Iranian exports. News reports affirm that trade movement has practically stopped between the two countries since the central government in Kabul lost control over border crossings with Iran during the fight with Taliban. Since then, Iran has lost $250 million in export revenues every month. Prominent among these exports are gasoline supplies that had a total value of $3 billion last year. Expectations indicate that the continuation of the civil war in Afghanistan or Taliban seizing control of the country will adversely affect the development projects of Iran’s Chabahar seaport that was excluded from the U.S sanctions for the sake of supporting Afghanistan’s economy. 
  • The deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan will negatively affect the dollar markets in Iran because Tehran will be no longer able to maintain its leverage in the city of Herat in which Tehran has used its influence over the past years to control the exchange rate of the U.S dollar in the country.
  • The security situation in Afghanistan will have an impact on the file of Helmand dam as one of the outstanding issues between the two countries. To be sure, it will have a significant effect on this contentious issue as Taliban has officially escalated this depute asserting that their country can only sell water to Iran for oil. However, this crisis may have a double effect, meaning that the deterioration of the security situation there will have a positive effect by the release of a larger amount of water to drought-hit Iran. Nonetheless, Taliban’s possible control of the country my put water agreements signed between the two countries at risk as the movement may not stick to the water share stipulated in these agreements.

Afghanistan as the battlefield of competition between regional powers

Afghanistan has always provided a battlefield of competition between global and regional powers. Given the current security situation, and as the civil war is looming with Taliban possibly taking reins of the government, it is expected that regional countries will seek to increase their interference in the country. As a result, it is likely that the competition between these actors will intensify in the future.

The Iranian regime perceives Afghanistan as the backyard of Iran that should be permanently monitored to prevent any threat against Tehran. Moreover, the regime looks at the Shiite minority as well as other ethnic groups and tribes of Persian origin as Iranian nationals that must be protected and used to support its regional political projects.

Saudi Arabia is seen on top of Iran’s undesired rivals in Afghanistan. Some officials in Iran’s political circles even overstate the nature of relation between Taliban and Riyadh, arguing that there is an organic relation between the movement and the kingdom’s political and security apparatus. Sometimes, Taliban is described as a tool used by Saudi Arabia in the game of reginal competition in the country. However, this argument seems weak and even invalid given the relation that currently exists between Qatar and Taliban. Nonetheless, this Iranian view indicates that Saudi Arabia can gain- in a way or another- a pressure card on Tehran to counterbalance Tehran in Yemen’s file. It is noticeable that Iran’s decision-making circles are becoming increasingly aware of this fact and that Afghanistan may emerge as “Iran’s Yemen”. It is likely that Saudi Arabia will try to use the Afghanistan card to extract concessions from Tehran particularly in Yemen’s file. However, the ability of Saudi Arabia to gain the needed degree of influence in Afghanistan remains questionable unless it can coordinate with other regional actors that maintain very close relations with the movement.    

Turkey has shown a desire to be part of the regional competition in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the U.S troops when Ankara tried to establish a military presence there and control Kabul airport. Overall developments in the region demonstrate that Turkey is usually seeking to establish a presence in Iran’s surrounding countries. Turkey has been engaged in competing with Iran in both Syria and Iraq, meddled in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, had a presence close to the Iranian Northwestern borders, and established a military presence in the Gulf region in Qatar. According to the estimates of some Iranian think-tanks, Ankara is trying now to complete its encirclement of Iran by enhancing its presence in Afghanistan.

These same think-tanks argue that Turkey’s plans in Afghanistan are part of President Erdogan’s expansionist ambitions in the region. The Turkish presence in Afghanistan will have political and economic repercussions as Ankara is trying to compete with Iran in the Afghan markets which will eventually enhance Turkey’s position on the map of  China’s “The Belt and Road” initiative.   

In case Taliban seizes control of Afghanistan, Pakistan can then gain a pressure card on Iran. This is attributed to the fact that Islam Abad has close relations with Taliban at both security and social levels as many circles including the current government in the country have accused Pakistan of providing logistical and military support to the movement. Taliban’s control over the whole country or even over large swathes in Afghanistan as a result of a civil war would give Pakistan’s security services the chance to operate in regions very close to the Iranian borders. By doing so, these services can expand their influence inside Iran and particularly in Sistan and Baluchistan province.

General conclusions

Even though Iran has welcomed the withdrawal of the U.S troops from Afghanistan out of its desire to see a decline in the U.S military presence in the region, Washington’s move has created a security vacuum that can be filled by Taliban to impose its dominance over the country. Therefore, Tehran now is facing a complicated situation as duplicity governs the Iranian logic in dealing with the movement with increased probability of Taliban seizing control of the government particularly bearing in mind that most analyses in Iran expect the collapse of the central authority in the country in favor of Taliban.

The approach of the Iranian regime towards Taliban has radically changed over the past years at the level of both Iran’s diplomatic corps and revolutionary institutions. Tehran’s dealing with the movement has become more pragmatic and flexible and less focused on ideological differences between the two sides. Rather, it has focused on the broad scope of interests both sides share as Tehran looks at the movement now as a card that can be used to achieve some gains. And yet, one can feel duplicity in Iran’s discourse regarding Taliban, how to deal with it, and the assessment of its future role, which in turn prevents Tehran from adopting clear-cut attitudes towards the movement.

From an Iranian perspective, Taliban’s dominance over Afghanistan will provide Iran’s local and regional rivals with competing agendas -who already have close relations with the movement- an operating space. They can then establish a foothold there; thereby threatening Iran’s security. Whether the Iranian assessment in this regard is right or wrong, this view will probably govern Tehran’s political approach towards Afghanistan in the future. Presumably, this perception will affect Iran’s efforts in shaping the political scene in Afghanistan.

Iran can not avoid the problems resultant from instability in Afghanistan without pursuing strict security policies and assisting in speeding up stabilization efforts in the country. Destabilized Afghanistan will lead to breakdown of security in border regions with an increase in weapons and drugs smuggling, and in the number of refugees in Iran. This instability will open the door for other scenarios in which Tehran might find itself forced to interfere in this chaotic scene.

Iran already has some effective tools for such interference. At the domestic level, Tehran maintains close ties with some war lords in Afghanistan such as Ahmad Masoud-son of Ahmad Shah Masoud- Iran’s former ally in Afghanistan, and Salahuddin Rabbani-son of Burhanuddin Rabbani who was the head of Islamic Society. “Fatimiyoun Brigade” is another strong weapon in Iran’s hand that can be used in any future battles in Afghanistan. It  was formed by IRGC comprising  Shiite fighters during the civil war in Syria and therefore it is well-equipped and trained for such mission. In a previous statement, Fatimiyoun Brigade has denied rumors that it has deployed units in Afghanistan. However, it has welcomed the pullout of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan calling for the establishment of an inclusive Islamic government in the country.

There are indicators of Iran’s desire to expand its influence in Afghanistan. Shiite Raba Allah militia in Iraq has expressed its willingness to fight any battle for defending Shiite interests in the world. Moreover, some newspaper in Iran expressed the desire to form Shiite mobilization forces in Afghanistan akin to Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). This would doubtless open up similar possibilities and make Afghanistan as a field of Iranian interference on sectarian premises. Economically, Iran will suffer from instability in Afghanistan at the level of trade movement and currency exchange. It will need to accept the competition of Turkey and other regional actors in Afghan markets.

Lastly, Iran’s attitude towards Taliban will remain ambivalent because the government and the deep state institutions adopt two contradictory logics in this regard. Iran opposes Taliban taking the reins of power and the establishment of an extremist Sunni Islamic emirate. It also wishes to see an end to the state of security breakdown in the country due to the current civil war. For Tehran, the optimum solution is the formation of a government in Kabul that is loyal to Iran in which Taliban shares power with actors close to Iran. This is the same solution that was alluded to by Iran’s foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, when he stressed that Iran supports the formation of an Islamic consensus government in Afghanistan. This solution can guarantee Iran’s continued influence over the government there in order to reach an actionable and radical solution with Taliban.

As far as the internal struggle between the state institutions is concerned in this regard, overall Iranian attitudes over the past few years and IRGC’s inherent inclinations have indicated that the revolutionary institutions want to take Afghanistan file from the government and use their “field diplomacy” instead of the “government’s diplomacy” through involving pro-IRGC militias in the crisis exactly as the regime has already done in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

As a result of these two contradictory logics, Iran’s attitudes towards Afghanistan and how to deal with Taliban in general seem inconsistent. Owing  to this duplicity in dealing with Afghanistan file, the Iranian regime will often fail to take quick and consolidated resolutions in this regard. However, it can be said that Tehran’s approach falls under a general strategy that has characterized Iran’s political dealings with regional issues over the past years.

Potential scenarios  

First scenario: The rise of Taliban and Tehran’s cautious involvement in Afghanistan.

This scenario assumes that Taliban movement succeeds in seizing control of the whole country or at least wide swathes in the country where it can establish its own Islamic emirate. The movement’s late quick military advance and gains on the ground in many districts and provinces across the country support this scenario. It seems that Taliban is paving the way for this development, when it tried to assure Afghanistan’s neighbors including Iran that the movement would not compromise the interests of these countries. However, this scenario would put Iran in face of a political regime with a total contradictory ideology.

This scenario also carries the risk of Afghanistan becoming an influence zone of other regional actors that oppose Iran’s regional project with which Taliban maintains close relations. The realization of this scenario should put Tehran’s security at risk with these actors becoming active in areas close to the Iranian borders, not to mention the dangers associated with the start of a new wave of refugees to Iran. This would also jeopardize Iran’s economic interests given the current relations between Taliban and other countries that can compete with Tehran in economic domains and markets in Afghanistan. Under this scenario, the regime in Tehran will probably seek to activate military resistance against Taliban by mobilizing Tajiks, Shiite community and other ethnic groups discontented with the Pashtun majority in the country. This will provide Iran with a bargaining chip to deal with the rise of Taliban in the country.

The Iranian regime might be forced to move some pro-Iran Shiite militias from the Middle East to Afghanistan under the pretext of defending Shiite interests and to exercise pressures on Afghanistan’s political scene. However, this trend can risk prolonging the war and instability on Iran’s Eastern borders, and this may even lead to an open civil war in the country. This, of course, is not the best option for Iran. To restore security in Afghanistan but on condition that Taliban guarantees the respect of the Iranian interests and borders, Tehran will accept that the movement receives a big share of power in the country. As such, Iran may benefit from the Shiite militias to a small extent only as a pressure card in order to get these assurances from Taliban to avoid being dragged into an open war and a situation similar to the Yemen’s quagmire. 

Second scenario: The outbreak of civil war

This scenario assumes that the country slips into a civil war. Iran does not prefer this option as this would lead to a state of security breakdown on its Eastern borders and add more economic and security burdens to the country with visible effects inside Iran through waves of refugees and various security breaches. Iran is currently preparing for this scenario as it has put its regular forces on high alert and mobilized militia groups close to it inside and outside Afghanistan. Although Iran has already sent military reinforcements and more equipment to units deployed along its borders with Afghanistan, and established an air base there, it is highly unlikely that Iranian regular forces will be dragged into a war or militarily intervene in Afghanistan. This in fact is quite true because Iranian air assets are obsolete and can not survive against light air defense systems. However, the use of pro-Iran militias inside Afghanistan- but to a limited extent and in a calculated manner- remains a feasible option. Some sources report ongoing preparations inside these militias for the future war in Afghanistan. Some sources indicate that “Fatemiyoun Brigade” has been active in Afghanistan in recent days, while others have talked about a “mobilization of Shiite forces”. Taliban along with the central government in Kabul has raised concerns about this news, as both sides affirmed that such a step would drag the country into an open sectarian war.

While Iran’s past experience in this kind of military operations and its good ability to build up and manage militias can support its position in Afghanistan, there are significant differences between the battlefield in Afghanistan and those in Iraq and Syria which puts Iran in a weak position. Therefore, Iran is likely to use these militias in Afghanistan for a political purpose and as a pressure card in its bid to extract more concessions and guarantee its interests while being extremely cautious not to enter into an open military encounter.  

Third scenario: The establishment of a participatory governance in Afghanistan.

This is the same scenario that was alluded to by Iran’s former foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, when he stressed his country’s desire to see the establishment of an Islamic participatory government in Afghanistan. Iran hopes to build an influence in this governance through Shiite components and other ethnic groups close to it. This is considered the best option for Iran as this will ensure that Tehran has a significant role in Afghanistan’s future political map. This will also spare Iran the risks of security breakdown in Afghanistan that will add more political, security and economic burdens to Tehran. Under this scenario, Iran may try to use its Shiite militias in a calculated manner to guarantee a share in Afghanistan’s political landscape. In the meantime, Tehran will try to activate its diplomacy to the maximum to stop security breakdown in Afghanistan and prevent Taliban from imposing its dominance over the entire country.

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