“The end of any occupation is a humiliating rejection,” twilde de Iraanse general Ali Shamkhani on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. With some satisfaction, he compared the US exit to previous failures in Iraq and Vietnam. President Raisi also welcomed the “American defeat” and called it “a new opportunity for the restoration of life, security and peace.”
But behind the glee are great concerns. After the takeover by the Taliban, there is a lot at stake for Iran. The country shares a border of more than 900 kilometers with Afghanistan, is partly dependent on Afghan rivers for its water supply and already hosts almost three million Afghan refugees.
“Tehran faces great uncertainty,” said Fatemeh Aman, an Iranian analyst at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington. “Like Pakistan, China and Russia, Iran has been desperate for the US to leave for years. But now that the time has come, they are in a huge safety vacuum.”
As a precaution, these countries are all reaching out to the Taliban. Pakistan already had excellent ties with the group. China, Russia and Iran are more cautious, but benevolent. For example, Iran was the first country to call Afghanistan an Emirate instead of a Republic – the term used by the Taliban themselves.
Read also Iran doesn’t quite know what to do with the Taliban yet
Yet historically, there is a lot of mistrust between the Shia Iranian regime and the Sunni Taliban. The last time the extremists took control of Afghanistan, in the 1990s, they oppressed the Shia minority, cut off the water supply to Iran and almost went to war after ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed in an attack in 1998. at the Iranian consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The hostility was so great that in 2001 Iranian General Qassem Soleimani (who was killed by the US last year) was still willing to provide intelligence to the Americans during their war against the Taliban.
But those same Americans drove Iran closer to the Taliban. When President Bush counted Iran as ‘the axis of evil’ in early 2002 and invaded Iraq a year later after Afghanistan, Tehran changed course. “They thought: ‘we are next,'” says Aman. “To prevent that, Iran began to establish ties with the Taliban. Not out of real support, but purely to make it as difficult as possible for the Americans in Afghanistan.”
Those ties were strengthened by the fight against Islamic State, which gained a foothold in Afghanistan from 2015 onwards. Iran saw that the Taliban, as an ideological rival to IS, were better able to fight the group than the Afghan army. “That was when Iran started cooperating with the Taliban,” Aman said. “There was even a pro-Iranian faction within the Taliban.”
But Iran offers no guarantees. The Taliban are tying up with many more countries, all of which are now vying for influence in the new Afghanistan. “Iran thought it could use the Taliban,” Aman says. “But it is more likely that the Taliban are using Iran. Because they can now play countries off against each other.”
As a permanent ally, Pakistan has a head start in that game. But according to Aman, Iran’s real fear is that arch-rival Saudi Arabia will buy more influence over the Taliban. “Afghanistan has traditionally mirrored the Saudi-Iranian conflict,” said Aman. “The most beautiful Shia mosques are built by Iran, the most beautiful Sunni by the Saudis. That competition can now take different forms.”
It seems that Tehran is already taking precautions. For example, shortly after the fall of Kabul, the newly-appointed President Raisi telephoned his Chinese colleague Xi. Iran and China will cooperate more closely in Afghanistan, according to Iranian state media.
Read also A hellish journey from Afghanistan, over the Iranian mountains to Turkey
The Iranian military has also been building troops along the Afghan border since the announcement of the US withdrawal this spring. Not only for safety, but also to stop refugees. Iran cannot cope with another refugee crisis, because the country is in a deep economic crisis and is estimated to already have almost three million Afghan refugees. Many Afghans are trying to travel on to Turkey and Europe, but that is becoming increasingly difficult as Ankara builds a border wall. Unlike Turkey, Iran does not have to count on European aid for refugee reception, according to Aman.
Iran sees no other option than rapprochement with the Taliban. Remarkably positive reports about the extremists have been appearing in Iranian state media for several weeks now. So wrote the conservative newspaper Kayhan, a mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Khamenei, said in late June that the Taliban have changed, leaving the Shia minority alone and no longer “cutting off heads.” Iran’s former ambassador to Afghanistan even claimed that the Taliban were not behind the deaths of Iranian diplomats and journalists in 1998 after all.
According to Aman, that “rewriting of history” is going down the wrong way for many Iranians. The Taliban are still widely hated in Iran. Secular Iranians in particular denounce the religious fanaticism of the Taliban and the Iranian regime as one pot. “We don’t want the Taliban, not in Kabul and not in Tehran,” was a slogan during mass anti-government protests in 2009.
Even within the traditional supporters of the regime, rapprochement with the Taliban is sensitive. For example, the 102-year-old Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani in the conservative Shiite city of Qom already sharply criticized Tehran’s realpolitik in July. “It is an irreparable mistake to trust a group with such a clear history of evil and murder,” warned the prominent cleric.
Whether that discontent can lead to protests or further divisions within the regime depends in part on how the Taliban will treat Afghan Shiites. Now that they are the center of attention, commanders of the group allowed the Shia Ashura festival to continue last week. At the same time, fighters already destroyed a statue of a Hazara leader (a predominantly Shia minority) and Amnesty reported that the Taliban massacred nine Hazara men in July.
If Iran allows such violence to pass, Aman says it will undermine its image as the leader of the Shia world and will widen the gap between the regime and the population. Still, the analyst expects Tehran to continue its pragmatic rapprochement with the Taliban. “In the end, the government cares little about the rights of minorities,” she says. “Iran’s Afghanistan policy always revolves around one thing: security.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 23 August 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 23, 2021