By Golnaz Esfandiari
February 4, 2021
Iran is defending its hosting of a senior Taliban delegation for an entire week in a move that analysts say is aimed at highlighting its influence and cultivating ties with the potential future government of Afghanistan.
The delegation, led by Taliban political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, held talks with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, amid criticism by many who pointed to Taliban atrocities and abuses by the extremist group, mainly the 1998 killings of seven Iranian diplomats and a journalist in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif after it was overrun by Taliban militants.
The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the killings, which brought Iran and the militant group to the verge of war, with Tehran deploying tens of thousands of troops along its border with Afghanistan.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh defended the Taliban visit at a press conference where he noted that “the Taliban is part of today’s reality of Afghanistan” and the government in Kabul had been informed of the trip. He added that Tehran had offered to facilitate peace talks between the militant group and the Afghan government.
“There are talks about the nature and activities of this group, we did not forget our martyrs in Mazar-e Sharif,” Khatibzadeh said, adding that the visit was in line with the stalled negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha.
When asked about the slaying of the officials and the IRNA reporter in Mazar-e Sharif, Taliban spokesman Soheil Shahin was quoted by domestic media as saying that “it had happened” before Taliban forces arrived in the Afghan city.
Looking To The Future
Tehran backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the Afghan civil war and Iran was reported to have provided the United States with military and intelligence support to help defeat the Taliban, while also playing a constructive role at the 2001 Bonn conference that created the first post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
In recent years, the two sworn enemies have forged ties amid reports of clandestine visits by Taliban members to Iran and accusations, denied by Tehran, that it has been arming the militants.
In the past two years, Tehran has publicly displayed contacts with the Taliban amid the United States’ talks with the militant group that resulted in an agreement signed in Doha in February 2020, which U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said it was reviewing.
Andrew Watkins, a senior International Crisis Group analyst for Afghanistan, says Iran, like other neighboring states, is hedging its bets on the future of Afghanistan. “Engaging officially with the Taliban is not only a safe strategic move, given the potential for the U.S. and NATO to withdraw troops [from Afghanistan] — thus giving military and political momentum to the Taliban, [enough] perhaps to even potentially topple the current Afghan government,” Watkins told RFE/RL.
“It is also politically safe, as the past two years of the U.S.’s diplomatic engagement with the Taliban has provided ample justification to any other state in the region to do the same,” he added.
Iran Has Clout, For Peace Or Otherwise…
Shahram Akbarzadeh, a professor of Middle East and Central Asian politics at Australia’s Deakin University, says Iran is determined to be noticed as a key player. “Iran is sending a message to the United States, Afghans, and the region that it has clout, influence, and interest in the future of Afghanistan and needs to be taken seriously.”
“It is signaling to the United States that it can play a constructive role in peace negotiations — on the flip side, the Iranian leadership is saying that if they are not taken seriously, Iran can spoil the peace,” Akbarzadeh added.
Amin Tarzi, the director of Middle East studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, says that despite the bad blood between them, Iran and the Taliban have found themselves on the same side in their desire to see Western forces leave Afghanistan.
Tarzi adds that in recent years, Iran’s strategy has been to assist with the peace process while at the same time cementing its ties with the Taliban. “It is possible that the current Iranian charm offensive with their former nemesis could result in the Taliban, or segments within the movement, becoming Iran’s long arm in Afghanistan, whether the Taliban become a part of the Afghan government or remain as a loyal or armed opposition,” he said.
Highlighting Tehran’s rationale for its rapprochement with the Taliban, Akbar Ganji, the editor of the hard-line daily Javan, which is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said that “making Afghanistan unsafe for the U.S. presence [by using] the Taliban” is important for Iran.
“The expulsion of the United States from Afghanistan was the dream of [Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s external Quds Force, who was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in 2020], and if the Taliban completes this important task our national security and interests are secured,” he wrote in a commentary.
Ganji said Iran may oppose some of the Taliban’s goals, but he added that if engaging the Taliban will “weaken the extremist group Islamic State, ensure the safety of Shi’a, and deprive Americans from a good night’s sleep, it is necessary.”
He also suggested that Tehran may have reached the conclusion that Iranian diplomats had been murdered “with the coordination of intelligence services of a third country,” which he did not name.
That claim was also made by lawmaker Fada Hossein Maleki, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, who blamed the 1998 attack on Iranians in Afghanistan on “foreigners and security services of a third country.” He claimed there is evidence to prove it.