Iran and the Taliban appeared to have reached some degree of regional understanding. But it turned out to be a short-lived optimism with Tehran showing signs of unease.
Iran and the Taliban have come a long way to find a common ground and narrow differences. But in the past few days, Iran's foreign ministry has been showing displeasure toward the Taliban taking control of the last opposition stronghold, the Panjshir valley, which signalled unease in their bilateral relations.
Tehran has also appeared to be hesitant toward Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Pakistan have developed strong ties, with some Taliban leaders being closely linked to Islamabad.
Despite some explicit signs, Iranian experts don’t think that relations between the Taliban and Tehran have come to the point of total rupture.
“There are no tensions. Iran is opposed to civil war and foreign military intervention,” Mohammed Marandi, an Iranian-American academic and a political analyst, tells TRT World, explaining why the Iranian foreign ministry frowned upon Taliban's actions in the Panjshir Valley, where Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, and his allies appeared to make a last stand against the group.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh expressed Tehran’s uneasiness toward Taliban’s operation in the famous valley.
“The news coming out of Panjshir is concerning. Last night’s attacks [on Panjshir] are condemned in the strongest terms. Martyrdom of Afghan leaders is deeply regrettable,” said Khatibzadeh, referring to Afghan casualties including Fahim Dashty, the spokesman of Massoud’s forces, who was also a respected Afghan journalist, and some senior commanders.
Tehran Times, an English language daily newspaper, which was founded in 1979 “to air the voice” of the Iranian Revolution according to its website, interpreted the new stance of Tehran as “Iran draws red lines on Afghanistan”.
The former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also had harsh words for the Taliban, echoing some of his old tirades against the world’s Jews, which were alleged to be anti-semitic.
“A group has been supported, which is created and then trained, armed and supported by the neighbours. It has captured a country and called itself the government. The world had either been watching or supporting. This is an ugly thing in the face of the world,” he said recently.
But Marandi still believes that the Iran-Taliban rapprochement has not gone off its course. He also thinks that “Ahmadinejad is irrelevant” in the Iranian political context. Tehran still views that “NATO retreat” from Afghanistan under the Taliban pressure “was a victory” and because the Taliban is a part of Afghan society, they can’t be “marginalised,” the professor says.
Tehran also thinks that the Taliban is not the same group, which came to power in 1996, and because it has different factions, it can’t be described as “a monolith” entity, according to the professor.
While Washington “pulled the rug out from under the former corrupt Afghan government”, Iran also helped the Taliban claim Afghanistan by pushing “Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek allies not to fight” against the group, the professor says.
But Fatima Karimkhan, a Tehran-based Iranian journalist, thinks that things are not as they used to be. “We can see that the honeymoon is over now, but about what will come next, it’s still too soon to have a clue,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
Karimkhan also sees a lot of problems in the recently formed Afghan government. “The Taliban had spoken about forming a multiethnic government but as you see the government is almost completely Pashtun, no role for Hazarahs, nothing for Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Shia population,” she says. The Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated group.
On the other hand, the group “is not tolerating” any non-Taliban mujahideen leaders like Massoud and others, she says, creating “a high level of pressure” from Iranian public opinion and media over Tehran “to step back from tolerating Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Iran has previously announced that it will support the transitional Afghan council, which included prominent figures like former President Hamid Karzai. “But the Taliban didn't show any signs of willingness to negotiate with them. These are the most important factors that change the way between Iran and the Taliban,” Karimkhan believes.
Who wants Afghan instability?
Muhammad Athar Javed, an International Security Program fellow at New America, a Washington-based think-tank, is also cautious about alleged Iran-Taliban escalations.
“We have to wait and see,” Javed tells TRT World. If Iran directly goes against the Taliban, then, it will “rather create a problem” of its own because “the West wants to have an anti-Iran Taliban” in order to continue to pressure Tehran, the analyst sees.
“I think it would mend,” Javed says, referring to differences between the Taliban and Iran.
Like Javed’s assessment, Marandi also thinks that Iran has no interest in escalating tensions with the Taliban.
Despite its retreat from Afghanistan, NATO, which is the world’s most powerful alliance, still wants “instability in Asia”, laying conditions for another civil conflict in the war-torn country, Marandi says.
But the Taliban’s non-inclusive newly-established government might also not help Afghanistan either, says the professor, claiming that the Taliban are “a minority”.
The country has various ethnic groups like Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras with their distinct cultural features and the Taliban should have considered these differences prior to their announcement of the government, he says. “Not all Pashtuns support them,” he adds.
As a result, Marandi believes that the Taliban “can’t run the country in the long run.”
Despite differing accounts over the recent nature of the Taliban-Tehran connections, there are serious signs, which show that tensions between Iran, a Shia-majority country, and Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country, increase over the course of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Taliban is a Sunni-dominant group.
“Afghanistan’s history shows that foreign intervention, both direct and indirect, has resulted in nothing but defeat for the aggressor force, and the Afghan people are independence-seeking and zealous, and certainly any intervention is doomed,” Khatibzadeh said, in an indirect reference to Pakistani influence over the Taliban. Most Taliban leaders were educated in Pakistani madrasas and also the Pashtuns are the second biggest ethnicity in Pakistan.
But Iran also interferes with other countries’ internal issues from Syria to Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen through its Shia proxies.
“There are differences, but no tensions,” Marandi insists. “Iran believes Pakistan is ignoring the majority of Afghans and this will lead to internal tensions,” he says. But in Syria, Iran also supports the Shia-affiliated Assad family against the Sunni majority, deepening the civil war.
Karimkhan has a harsher tone than Marandi. “Iran and Pakistan are regional competitors. Pakistan is the number one suspect in the Mazar-i Sharif attack on the Iranian consulate and now the first foreign guest of the Taliban even before they form a government is Pakistan’s ISI chief. Of course Iran will not welcome that,” she says.
In 1998, nine Iranian diplomats were killed in Mazar-i Sharif and Tehran accused the Taliban of the attack. The Taliban denied any involvement. Most recently, Faiz Hameed, the chief of Pakistan's spy agency ISI, visited Afghanistan, meeting top Taliban leaders.