Mapping Iran’s Policy Towards A Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan – Analysis

On 26 February, the Islamic Republic of Iran joined a small but significant number of countries that allowed diplomats from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) to take charge of the embassy of Afghanistan in Tehran. This development was a subtle shift from Iran’s earlier insistence on not handing over its embassy to a regime it doesn’t recognise, reiterating its commitment towards an inclusive government with representatives from all communities.

The Iran-Afghanistan relationship has constantly wavered between phases of cooperation and contestation. Some issues such as the frequent border skirmishes, the constant flow of refugees into Iran from its eastern border with Afghanistan, and the dispute over the equitable sharing of water have persisted irrespective of who is in power in Kabul. But with the Taliban now at the helm of affairs, the perceived cross-border threat of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) for Iran and other security considerations may create opportunities for cooperation. Straitjacketed between geography and geopolitics, both sides attach importance to the ties considering some form of engagement is essential for securing their interests. But the incongruence between some competing interests has made cooperation difficult, having repercussions for the region.

Oscillating between cooperation and contestation

In the aftermath Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini outlined Iran’s approach towards the regime next door. According to him, Iran’s policy will be reciprocal, influenced by the degree of sensitivity shown by the Taliban towards their interests and priorities in the region. While this doesn’t eschew the need for a long-term strategy, it does signify the reservations Tehran has about trusting the Taliban completely. Iran , irrespective of the people in power, has always been wary of Afghanistan, but the changed international context and the charged internal environment have compounded the difficulties. Forming a coherent policy response has also magnified the domestic divisions within Iran, with some sections more receptive to the idea of engaging with the Taliban.

Bound together by geography and shared political, economic and civilisational ties, Iran and Afghanistan have had a historically significant but tumultuous bilateral relationship. Over the years, trade and economic cooperation have boomed, with two-way trade reaching US$1 billion as per the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce. For Tehran, trade with Kabul has been a means to transcend the crippling effects of the US sanctions, sporadically in place since 2005, and has helped support Iran’s ‘resistance economy’. The border regions are also deeply integrated, with Iranian rials being used in the Afghan border town of Zaranj and the ubiquitous presence of Iranian goods on supermarket shelves. But while trade has boomed, differences in other aspects have continued to fester.

Refugee population in Iran

From August 2021 till February 2023, officials from Tehran and Kabul have met around 67 times, mostly bilaterally. The purported agenda of these meetings is to seek a consensus on the issues plaguing the ties and to chart a middle ground. Of these ‘issues’, some have the potential to deteriorate the relationship further. Last year(March 2022- February 2023), nearly 445,403 refugees from Afghanistan took refuge in Iran. Tehran has historically hosted a large proportion of Afghan refugees, mainly from the Shia Hazara and Tajik communities with around 3.6 million refugees already present in the country. But while its refugee policy has been relatively inclusive, it has repatriated many refugees back to Afghanistan, sometimes voluntarily and often times through force.

Last month, 11 refugees who were illegally trying to cross the border were shot by the Iranian guards leading to an uproar and anti-Iran protests inside Kabul. Since the coming of the Taliban, around 100 refugees who were trying to enter Iran illegally have met the same fate. While Tehran has taken a few steps to regulate the flow of refugees in the country, through the facilitation of visas and offers to contribute to the rebuilding of the airport at Nangarhar near the border with Afghanistan, the two sides have also met regularly to discuss the mistreatment of refugees and their forced repatriation, but with no significant progress.

Waters of the Helmand

Differences over the equitable distribution of water flowing from the Helmand River in Afghanistan to the Hamoun wetlands in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province have also been a sticky issue. As both Kabul and Tehran grapple with water shortages and the lack of a robust water management infrastructure, any (mis)actions on this question have domestic political implications. For Tehran, a shortage of water will accelerate the outmigration from the restive province of Sistan Baluchistan and increase the already brewing discontentment in the country. When the Kamal Khan Dam was inaugurated in March 2021, former president, Ashraf Ghani, reclaiming Afghans’ agency on their water, refused to give away water for free, asking Tehran to instead give it oil in return.

Tehran’s hopes of the Taliban government respecting its sensitivities, unlike the previous US-backed governments, were dashed when the water from the dam was diverted to fields in Afghanistan, rendering Iran’s protestations useless. Its threats of presenting a legal challenge to secure its rights under the treaty have also failed to perturb the IEA, which reiterated the primacy of its own national interests and saw the opening of the dam as Afghans reclaiming their fair share. The Deputy Minister of Energy and Water, Mujeeb ur Rahman Omar, outlined the Taliban’s commitment to Afghanistan’s national interests, stating that they will focus on building more dams. Owing to the emotive nature of the issue, the potential of its spillover into other aspects of the relationship and its co-option by elements inside both countries are also high, as the Iranian MPs’ threat to evict Afghan refugees in the border towns and the protests by Afghans outside Tehran’s embassy and consulates in the country show.

The border has also witnessed frequent skirmishes because of apparent ‘misunderstandings’, sometimes resulting in an exchange of fire and the capture of posts. The last few months have seen multiple major incidents in Hirmand county, Herat, and Nimroz province. The Iranian border guards have intercepted the Taliban’s attempts to raise their flags in territories claimed by Iran and construct illegal roads, while warning against conflating its muted response to these transgressions as its weakness. A joint commission to cooperate on the issue was formed in August 2022but the clashes have continued with the latest stand-off on 5 March . Instability at the border accentuates the risks of drug smuggling and could also bolster the criminal gangs operating in the region.

The ISIS threat: Incentive enough to cooperate?

For Tehran, the biggest negative externality that a change in regime in Kabul has imposed is the renewed threat of extremist and terrorist organisations, apart from the Taliban, which have grown in strength since the latter assumed power. While the ISKP—the regional offshoot of the ISIS—has posed a challenge to the Taliban, its threat also looms large over Iran. Many ISKP hideouts have been found close to the Iran-Afghanistan border in Zaranj. The group has also been responsible for attacks on interests of other countries like Russia and China inside Afghanistan. So, securing Taliban’s support and ensuring that it responds to the machinations of the ISKP has been a significant priority for Tehran.

It is because of this inconvenient reality that Iran is willing to cooperate with the Taliban and dial down its support to the opposition groups, barring opposition leaders from creating parallel structures of governance. This also explains the efforts to rebrand the group, differentiating the ‘indigenous’ nature of the Taliban from the ‘outsiders’ of the ISKP and how the former isn’t looking to establish a caliphate, unlike the ISKP. Taliban’s past atrocities against the Shias were also downplayed. This continuation of Iran’s ‘Janus-faced policy’ is aimed at strengthening its responses and securing its interests from all sides.

Striving for influence

There is a general sense of optimism in certain sections that Afghanistan offers Iranian leaders the opportunity to ‘constructively engage’ with the international community. The fall of Kabul is thus viewed as a means of reinventing ties between the West and Iran, with Kabul becoming an ‘avenue for diplomatic engagement and collaboration’ advancing the interests of all sides. When US forces did withdraw from the country, Tehran leveraged the withdrawal as a chance to deride the US’s failure after two decades of involvement in the country, and to project itself as the responsible country in the region—the proponent of the ‘Axis of Resistance’.

So, for Iran, moving forward, maintaining its image as the vanguard of resistance in the region against the West’s machinations will accord priority. For a deeply isolated Taliban, even limited support from Tehran is crucial to entrench its footing in Kabul, while, for Tehran, keeping the ISKP at bay will dictate its long-term strategy. In their most recent meeting with the Taliban officials, the Iranian Embassy in Kabul hoped that the “expansion of relations and commonalities between the two countries” will lead to the Taliban accepting Iran’s demands. While this could be a misplaced sense of optimism about the influence that the former still has in Afghanistan, it does indicate the necessity for cooperation between the two sides. It also shows how Tehran’s policy will be more reactive and ad hoc in the short term.