By decreasing sectarian tensions, a changing Taliban and post-revolution Iran, the two anti-American neighbours, have shown signs of goodwill to each other in recent years.
Iran, a Shia-majority country, and the Taliban, a Sunni-dominant political Islamic group, were on the edge of fighting each other in 1998, when the Taliban-affiliated forces allegedly killed nine Iranian diplomats at Tehran’s consulate in Mazar-i Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
But in recent years, sectarian tensions between Iran and the Taliban have appeared to be replaced by regional political rationality based on their mutual interests which a new and changing Taliban seem to have understood far better than their predecessors, according to experts.
The Taliban’s political “evolution” from the 1990s to 2020s has a lot to do with why Tehran and Taliban-led Kabul could press a reset in the bi-lateral relationship, says Muhammad Athar Javed, an International Security Program fellow at New America, a Washington-based think-tank.
Despite the widespread distrust toward the sentiment of how much the Taliban has evolved, Javed thinks that the two main political dynamics clearly show the group’s changing attitude.
“First, the Taliban has demonstrated that they have a strategic understanding of regional politics like which countries are important and how they should conduct their relations with those states,” Javed tells TRT World.
Secondly, he adds, they are engaged in image-building, showing a significant concern about how the world should look at them, which indicates that they care about “global perspective”.
These two factors alongside both countries’ opposition to the US presence in the region explain “why Taliban’s relations are better with Iran than others,” Javed says.
On Iran’s side, Tehran, which sees itself as the protector of Shiites across the Islamic world, also understands that Afghanistan’s Shia minority Hazaras can not be secured without their representation at the local level under the Taliban, according to Javed.
It means Hazaras and the Taliban need to reach a political compromise to manage their own differences. During the Taliban's first rule, Hazaras, a Turkic origin ethnicity, faced a lot of persecution, but this time around the Taliban appear to tolerate their rituals including recent Ashura celebrations.
Even one of the Hazaras, Mawlawi Mahdi, became a leading commander among Taliban ranks, who suggests that the second rule of the group will be different towards the ethnic and sectarian minority. An inclusive policy towards Hazaras might also help the Taliban establish a countrywide control over Afghanistan, a divided country.
By decreasing sectarian tensions by promoting regional cooperation, Taliban’s Afghanistan will also feel less pressure from Tehran that the Shia-majority country will use Hazaras or other groups against Kabul, Javed says. And if Hazaras feel just fine in Afghanistan, then, Iran will also look at the Taliban as a positive force, he adds.
“It’s a win-win situation. Due to that, Iran and the Taliban have created an understanding particularly during the past ten years,” Javed says. “They started talking to each other”, which resulted in discovering their common interests from trade to their opposition to the US military presence in Central Asia, says the political analyst.
Like Qatar and Russia, Iran was also instrumental in developing the Taliban talks with Western powers, which eventually initiated to process the US pullout from Afghanistan, according to Javed.
Fatima Karimkhan, a Tehran-based journalist, also thinks that Taliban’s changing attitude has played an important role in the recent rapprochement between the group and Tehran.
“The Taliban has changed a lot, at least they say they changed. So Iran is very much awaited to see what is coming next,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
She also draws attention to facts on the ground that there is almost no other group and even power in Afghanistan now that it could pose a serious threat to the Taliban. “There is a chance that even the Panjshir region could not resist the situation,” she says, referring to Tajik leader Ahmad Massoud’s resistance to the Taliban.
But she adds that Iran also hosts Ismail Khan, a well-known leader of the mujahideen movement, who was leading forces in western Afghanistan against the Taliban prior to the defeat of the former Afghan government. “But I don't know if his forces are with him or not,” she says.
Consensus on the Big Satan
Following the US War on Terror, which saw the bloody American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran also appears to respect the Taliban, which “managed to outclass all NATO-member states including the United States, which Iran regards as the Big Satan,” says Javed.
“It’s also a sigh of relief for Iran that they [Americans] left the next door, so they can’t conduct reconnaissance or intelligence gathering on borders against Tehran,” Javed observes. Iranians are “happy” that the US is now “far away” with their military equipment, the analyst says.
During the War on Terror period, Iran has always feared that it could face another US intervention. But now partly thanks to the Taliban, the War on Terror also appeared to end with a US defeat. As a result, both the Taliban and Iran might also cooperate with each other to oppose Washington’s diminishing regional agenda.
Like Iran, the Taliban has also recently developed strong connections with Russia and China, the two archenemies of the US, and that dynamic has also contributed to create a common political understanding between Tehran and Kabul’s new rulers.
Despite their differences, the Taliban’s political structure also shows some similarities to Iran’s semi-theocratic state-building. As post-revolution Iran did four decades ago, the Taliban has also appeared to reconstitute a spiritual leadership, which will run in parallel to their political structure.
Despite a visible Taliban-Iran rapprochement, Karimkhan still believes that it might be too early to declare that the two political entities have reached a comprehensive understanding.
Iran’s acceptance of the Taliban is dependent on their policy on Tehran and their interest in the region, said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to Karimkhan.
The supreme leader's diplomatic language suggests that “Iran still has not decided about the Taliban. If Iran's interests are safe, Tehran will accept the new government just like other countries in the world,” Karimkhan says.
Iran has about a 990km-long border with Afghanistan, which means that the safety of the border will be the first priority for Tehran, Karimkhan adds. “Iran, just like any other country in the world, is watching the situation very closely.”
Securing borders is also important to control the illicit drug trade. Afghanistan is infamous for its opium trade. Like the Taliban, Iranians are also against drugs, says Javed. Both Iranians and the Taliban don’t want any increase in the illegal opium trade, according to Javed.