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Recent reports about Iran recruiting and training Taliban fighters are alarming, but they aren’t new. International forces in Afghanistan have seized shipments of Iranian weapons en route to Taliban groups before, once in 2007 and again in 2011. The shipments were big enough that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates went on the record about the “substantial” quantities of weapons that were unlikely to have crossed the border “without the knowledge of the Iranian government.” Later, David Petraeus, who was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, explained that, in sending weapons to the Taliban, Iranian officials weren’t likely hoping that the Sunni group would succeed. But, he said, “they don't want us to succeed too easily either.”
That is still true today. For Iran, arming the Taliban is a way to counter U.S. influence and hedge against the growing threat of the Islamic State (also called ISIS).
At the moment, Tehran’s relations with Kabul are friendly. But the arrangement is primarily driven by security concerns. During Taliban rule, Iran supported a loose coalition of opposition militias, the erstwhile Northern Alliance, to the extent that some Revolutionary Guard commanders reportedly fought alongside them. Tehran was motivated by fears that the Taliban could potentially join forces with Jundallah, a Sunni militant group that operates inside Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, and support the Baluchi separatists. In 1998, Iran came to the brink of war with the Taliban after the group seized an Iranian consulate in northern Afghanistan and killed eight diplomats. Subsequently, in 2001, Tehran tacitly supported the U.S. invasion and toppling of the Taliban regime, and later even offered to help train Afghan security forces.
All the while, Iran might have been slipping the Taliban the odd weapon or two, but until 2010, it was openly opposed to any negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, in 2011, in a surprising shift in its long-held policy, Iran suddenly became supportive of peace talks and even offered to host meetings between the two parties in Tehran. What might have prompted Iran’s to flip at that moment was the appointment of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a powerful figure in the Northern Alliance, by former President Hamid Karzai to lead the Afghan High Peace Council, an entity tasked with facilitating talks with the Taliban. (Soon after his appointment, Rabbani was killed by the Taliban just after returning from a visit to Iran.) At the same time, Iran remains opposed to any direct talks between the Taliban and the United States. In 2013, after the Taliban opened its Qatar-based political office, the Iranian foreign ministry released a statement stating that “Iran believes that imposed negotiations masterminded by foreigners ignoring Afghanistan’s national interests and expediencies, will not yield any results.”
In 2010, reports surfaced that Iran has routinely provided bags of cash worth millions of dollars to buy loyalty in the government of former President Hamid Karzai.These days, Iran’s engagement in Afghanistan includes $3 billion in annual bilateral trade; playing host to over one million Afghan refugees, from which Iran supposedly recruits fighters to dispatch to the Taliban; building and financing Shia religious centers; supporting Afghan media institutions; bankrolling the campaigns of its preferred candidates in elections; and building roads that connect the Afghan province of Herat to the Iranian border. In 2006, Afghanistan opened its largest Iran-sponsored Shia mosque, which also houses an Islamic university. In 2010, reports surfaced that Iran has routinely provided bags of cash worth millions of dollars to buy loyalty in the government of former President Hamid Karzai. And in 2013, Iran and Afghanistan signed a strategic cooperation agreement aimed (on the Iranian side) at offsetting U.S. influence. The pact included important economic and security measures, including boosting bilateral cooperation on transit, investment, commercial, and educational exchanges, expanding tourism, fighting terrorism and cross-border drug trafficking, sharing intelligence, and conducting joint military exercises. The agreement also included calls for a number of trilateral dialogues that exclude the Taliban’s historical patron, Pakistan. According to leaked U.S. government cables, Iran even routinely urges the Afghan parliament to back anti-U.S. policies and to raise anti-U.S. talking points during parliamentary sessions to stir tensions. In private, Iran acknowledges its measured financial support for certain Afghan political parties and leaders.
In all this meddling, one thing is clear: Iran’s primary goal is to balance against the United States. Iran staunchly opposed the U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement, signed last year, which allows the United States to maintain a smaller military footprint and bases in Afghanistan. Some of these will be near Iran’s border, which has raised red flags among Iranian hardliners. Although Iran would of course be opposed to the Taliban’s return to power, continued U.S. presence in the region has prompted the Iranian regime to find an alternative strategy, including embracing some Taliban groups, to ensure that Iran holds some sway over the Taliban should it someday reconcile with Afghan government.
Iran has established its own high-profile contacts with these factions. Although it is unknown which specific Taliban groups Iran backs, the regime’s principal point person in the Taliban appears to be Tayeb Agha. Once a low-level interpreter for the Taliban’s foreign ministry, Agha quickly jumped up the ranks after becoming a close confidante of Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, and is now purportedly in-charge of Taliban’s Qatar-based office. In 2007, Iran hosted him along with Taliban’s former deputy commerce minister at an Islamic Awakening conference organized by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in Tehran. Since then, Iran has received at least two other Taliban delegations in Tehran—one in 2013 and another recently in May—both of which has reportedly been led by Agha. He has become closer to Iran over the years, leading to speculations that, at one point, he has sought refugee in Iran to escape arrest in Pakistan.
By embracing men such as Agha and certain Taliban groups, Iran has effectively become both a peacemaker and a spoiler. Here, the rise of ISIS and other Sunni militants also plays a role. In recent months, ISIS has expanded into South Asia, and is actively reinforcing its base and looking recruits, which Iran sees as a threat. For the Taliban, ISIS is both a rival and a competitor that not only snatches away its supporters but also funding. Recently, the Taliban sent a long letter to ISIS warning that the Afghan war should be fought under “one flag and one leader” and that if ISIS doesn’t stay out, “the Taliban will be forced to act.” But several renegade Taliban members have already switched allegiances to ISIS. With respect to Iran, one such defector, Mullah Muhammad Noorzai, recently told The Daily Beast that, “Iran is our No. 1 enemy and if Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliph) sends the order, we will definitely cross from Afghanistan to Iran.” He continues that, “I fought for Mullah Omar for 20 years and I regret that very much. Taliban just serve the interest of Pakistan, not Islam.” The rise of ISIS, including potential Sunni-led insurgency in Iran, thus gives Tehran yet one more reason to work with the Taliban. More broadly, Iran wants to counter Sunnism in general and the Saudi Arabia-influenced Wahhabi ideology, in particular. In response to Iran’s Shia mosque, Saudi Arabia announced it would spend $100 million and build its own Islamic center with a university in Afghanistan, a project that is expected to complete in 2016.
During future peace talks, Iran could use its patronage of the Taliban as leverage with Kabul, whose support for Saudi Arabia’s recent military intervention in Yemen to target Shia rebels did not go unnoticed.
The evolving alliances between Tehran and Kabul and Tehran and the Taliban, despite distrust on all sides, only further tangles the knot in Afghanistan. During future peace talks, Iran could use its patronage of the Taliban as leverage with Kabul, whose support for Saudi Arabia’s recent military intervention in Yemen to target Shia rebels did not go unnoticed. Needless to say, Iran sees itself a key player with legitimate stakes in Afghanistan, and it does not want to see developments there that run contrary to its core interests. If the price of those regional interests is embracing certain Taliban factions, Tehran appears ready to pay it.