Is the early twilight of the Iran-Taliban honeymoon over?

Despite what seemed like a honeymoon period between Iran’s leadership and the Taliban, growing tensions have been brewing. Kourosh Ziabari explains why he believes this is a doomed political relationship.

In August 2021, when the Taliban completed its takeover of Afghanistan after an impetuous US withdrawal, authorities in Iran mutely celebrated what they saw as an auspicious departure of a nemesis from their doorstep and the renewed reign of a clique in which they could find a like-minded ally.

It wasn’t long before their low-key endorsement of the collapse of a US-aligned leader, Ashraf Ghani, and playing footsie with the newly-minted Islamic Emirate developed into a partnership. Against the odds, it turned out, the Iranian government was indulging a cryptic group of insurgents resented by a sizeable population of Afghans and eschewed by the international community.

In early January 2022, Afghanistan’s de facto foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi visited Tehran in his first international trip after the fall of Kabul. Skeptics chided the Iranian government for hosting him and his aides, but Tehran tried to dissipate the concerns by making it clear that lending diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government wasn’t in the cards.

''As the doomsayers expected, the failure of the precocious desire to embrace the Taliban as a full-fledged ideological, economic and political confidante has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the two sides have been at each other’s throats in the recent weeks. What started as a passionate honeymoon seems to be ending in a bitter divorce Iran is still trying to avert.'' 

Withholding recognition by the Islamic Republic, however, didn’t mean that the two sides didn’t find strength in their mutual ideological complementarity based on their kindred interpretation of the Sharia law, their espousal of political Islam and their anti-US line. The commonalities started to underpin an economic relationship, a lifeline that most of the rest of the world was unwilling to offer the self-declared emirate.

Business delegations were soon exchanged, and Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, Taliban’s acting minister of economy, came to Iran in November 2022, pledging to take the economic ties to a new level. In March, the acting Minister of Commerce and Industry Haji Nooruddin Azizi and his entourage paid a visit, demanding that a target should be set for bilateral trade to leap to $10 billion annually from the current $1.5 billion.

Despite a brief period of stagnation in bilateral trade that followed the upheaval in Afghanistan, the flow of goods and capital between the two neighbours picked up again, the Taliban reduced import tariffs by one-eighth exponentially facilitating shipments from Iran, and talks began on resuming the construction of a vaunted railway connecting the city of Khaf in northeastern Iran to Herat in Afghanistan. In no time, Iran emerged as one of the largest trade partners for the new regime in Kabul.

Domestic critics warned the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi against a cloying, gratuitous bromance with the Taliban as it intensified its campaign against women and tightened the noose around a fragile Afghan civil society. On the world stage, also, the blooming rapport didn’t strike a chord and Western capitals were specifically concerned that Iran’s overtures to what remained an international outlier were excessive, with grave security implications.

The government in Tehran, however, was starry-eyed about the presupposed benefits of the new alliance it was forging, and in what resonated with many Afghans as a betrayal, handed over the embassy of Afghanistan in Tehran to the representatives of the Taliban earlier in February. The three-colour flag of the now-defunct republic of Afghanistan was taken down from the embassy premises, and the Taliban flag was raised.

Iran’s foreign ministry officials insisted that the embassy handover didn’t amount to a formalisation of relations with the Taliban, and it was rather an internal matter of the Afghans to which the Islamic Republic wasn’t privy. But it wasn’t difficult to decipher what it meant to have the diplomats of the Afghan republic evacuate their last outpost in Iran and be replaced by the the new regime scrambling for international legitimacy.

Yet, as the doomsayers expected, the failure of the precocious desire to embrace the Taliban as a full-fledged ideological, economic and political confidante has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the two sides have been at each other’s throats in the recent weeks. What started as a passionate honeymoon seems to be ending in a bitter divorce Iran is still trying to avert.

Just last month, Raisi warned the Taliban that they should take steps to immediately grant Iran the Helmand River water rights. He cautioned the de facto Afghanistan rulers to implement the terms of a 1973 treaty between the two countries that demarcates the shared water resources from the river feeding into the cross-border Hamun Lake, a major source of hydration for Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province.

Periodic droughts in Iran’s southeastern province are caused by Afghanistan curtailing the flow of water by building dams on the Helmand River, asphyxiating the Sistan Basin’s access to its primary watershed. According to the 1973 deal, Afghanistan should provide Iran with 850 million cubic meters of water yearly, but authorities in Tehran say the country has received only 14 percent of the agreed share, resulting in chronic dry spells affecting the people of Iran’s largest province, and intermittent disputes between the two states.

In reaction to Raisi’s admonition, the Taliban went into a collective frenzy and they responded with a sharp-tongued statement tweeted by the Islamic Emirate spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, advising the Iranian authorities to “complete their knowledge about the Helmand River water and then raise their requests with appropriate words.”

The Taliban also came up with its own creativities to retaliate what it perceived to be a misplaced threat by the Iranian president. In a video that has swept social media, a Taliban commander pours scorn on Raisi as he fills a yellow barrel of water near the Helmand River, saying in a sarcastic tone, “this is for the president of Iran. We will give you the water you asked for. Please don’t threaten us, we will be frightened!”

A week after Raisi’s warning, in clashes that erupted near a border post between Iran and Afghanistan, two Iranian guards were killed amid a deadly shooting that also resulted in several injuries. Following the tensions, Afghanistan media released footage of tens of tanks and armoured vehicles being dispatched to the Islam Qala border town in the vicinity of Taybad city in Iran, signalling the Taliban’s preparedness for a confrontation.

The Islamic Republic officials have shifted to damage-control mode by remarking that skirmishes with the Taliban are part of an “intra-family dispute” and that engagement with the Taliban would continue and dialogue should be the sole conduit to resolving the differences. Evidently, they didn’t take a tougher stand as they could anticipate that escalation with an unpredictable Taliban would consume their resources, and also negative relations would be self-sabotaging following all the public mollycoddling.

For an administration that has been clearly floundering to score diplomatic achievements, elevation of relations with the Taliban doesn’t count as a triumph. On social media, Iranians have been lamenting Raisi’s botched governance and that his demerits have made him amenable to parody by the Taliban.

What Iran has been touting as a cementing of neighbouring ties is merely a love affair thriving on religious kinships, and because it is not favoured by the majority of the two constituencies who remain skeptical of the relationship, it is highly unlikely to yield any realpolitik jackpot.