Parwiz / Reuters An Afghan policeman keeps watch after a suicide attack on a police headquarters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, June 1, 2015.

The Enemy of Iran's Enemy in Afghanistan

Tehran's Growing Ties with the Taliban

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. 

Iranian revolutionary guards lineup while participating in military maneuvres held near the Afganistan border. Iran's Ground Forces commander Brigadier General Abdolali Pourshasb said that

Iranian revolutionary guards lineup while participating in military maneuvres held near the Afganistan border. Iran's Ground Forces commander Brigadier General Abdolali Pourshasb said that "our policy is defensive. We do not intend to commit aggression against any country .... but we are ready to answer any move by the Taliban with a full power." September 2, 1998. 

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

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