Iranian FM Javad Zarif (R) is shown meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C) of the Taliban in Tehran, Jan 31. (AFP)

By Track Persia

August 25, 2021

The Iranian regime is one the first regimes that publicly cheered the victory of the Taliban over the United States after the latter has started the hasty withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Iranian new President Ebrahim Raisi said that the “defeat” of the United States was a prime opportunity to “revive life, security and lasting peace.” However, it seems that Tehran has many concerns over the new development in its eastern neighbour.

That has been said, Iran fears finding itself overwhelmed by a humanitarian and security crisis caused by the huge wave of refugees because it is not well equipped to handle it, especially it has already been home to about five million Afghans.

Despite its bitterness and enmity toward the extremist Sunni Taliban militants, the Shiite Iranian regime has built good ties with the Taliban over the past few years. It has exerted significant influence in Afghanistan, in particular, around western and northern regions of the country such as Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.

Mutual distrust 

On the Taliban side, it is unlikely that the extremist Sunni militants have forgotten Tehran’s support for the Northern Alliance, an umbrella of various ethnic and religious minorities involved in fighting the Pashtun Sunni Taliban during the 1990s civil war. The Northern Alliance was responsible for the killing of several thousand Taliban prisoners. This prompted the Taliban’s revenge upon Tehran that is embodied in the Taliban’s murder of several Iranian diplomats in 1998.

Having said that, the Taliban will stay neutral if Tehran does not further meddle in their county. On the contrary, Iran’s efforts to bring its Middle Eastern rivalries into Afghanistan will reverberate closer to the Iranian homeland. Keeping in view the US ouster from Afghanistan, the Taliban reprisals can hurt Iran grievously.

On the Iranian side, the Taliban’s complete takeover of Afghanistan makes Tehran nervous, given their troubled past. In 1998, the Taliban and Tehran almost went to war after killing eight Quds Force guards at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. Iran’s deep-seated historical apprehensions towards the Taliban revived in July when the group took control of two Shia towns in the Bamiyan province.

Additionally, the Iranian regime does not trust the Taliban, notwithstanding its tactical cooperation with the militant group is aimed to oust the US troops from Afghanistan. In January 2021, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, met with a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tehran. Though Shamkhani praised the Taliban’s steadfastness in battling the US presence in the country, he warned that Iran would not recognise any government in Afghanistan formed through a military takeover. The Iranian former Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif echoed a similar sentiment.

The mistrust between Tehran and the Taliban is also reflected in a statement quoted by Iranian media, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami as saying that “the scope of our observations has gone beyond the borders and we are monitoring and controlling all the developments in the neighbouring country.”

Iran’s endouvers to revive proxy Shiite militia in Afghanistan

Amid the US pullout from Afghanistan, Iran has deployed IRGC and the national armed forces (Artesh) along the 945-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan coupled with moving battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and surveillance systems on forwarding security posts.

The IRGC whose main task is exporting the Iranian Islamic Revolution into the world, in particular, regional and neighbouring, has played a significant role in forming and sponsoring a unit of Afghan Shiite fighters, the Fatemiyoun which during the Syrian civil war were were deployed in Syria to defend the dictatorship of the Shiite Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Iranian theocratic regime established the Fatemiyoun Unit in the 1980s, comprising Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia, during the Iran-Iraq war. Recently, it has been reported that the militants of this unit have been (re)introduced in Afghanistan to protect, and by extension, control Afghanistan’s Shiite population and use it as leverage in the country’s future political order. Afghanistan’s Shiite community is nearly 15 percent of the total population and most of it resides in central Afghanistan, with some pockets living in the north, west and southwest.

Tehran exploited the poor socio-economic conditions of the Afghan Hazara Shiite workers in Iran by threatening and blackmailing them with deportation, withdrawal of the residency permits and detentions for illegally working in the country to fight its proxy war in Syria.

Over the past few weeks and during the early days of the US pullout from Afghanistan that followed by the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains, Tehran formed the Hashd Al-Shi’i (Shiite Mobilisation) in Afghanistan rebranding the Fatemiyoun Unit. The Jomhouri Eslami, Iran’s conservative daily, reported on July 19 that Hashd Al-Shi’i is like Hashd Al-Shabi (the Popular Mobilisations) which IRGC’s Quds Force (QF) deployed in Iraq and Syria. The Fatemiyoun is reported to have been led by Saeed Hassan al-Heydari, who is based in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province.

Furthermore, following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a large number of the Fatemiyoun militants have returned to Afghanistan from Iran. Some estimates suggest that around 3,000 Afghan Shia militants have made their way to Afghanistan from Iran.

Tehran’s keenness on maintaining good ties with the Taliban

Tehran has become very keen to strike a cooperation agreement with the Taliban to secure the safety of its diplomats and the integrity of its borders following the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan. To send a clear message of good intention to the Taliban, Tehran is also focusing in its public statements on negotiating peace through its allies of various ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan.

By maintaining a friendly policy towards the Taliban, Tehran wants to guarantee that its eastern neighbours will continue depending on the Iranian export market which is a major lucrative source for the Iranian economy. Iranian leaders are keen on maintaining this policy because they realise that Afghanistan does not have a strong manufacturing sector and Iranian goods dominate the Afghan markets, especially in the eastern parts of the country.

The city of Herat, for example, which is situated near the Iranian border is an important economic and commercial hub through which Iranian imports spread to other parts of the country.

Tehran also uses Herat to circumvent US sanctions. Iran has experienced two rounds of tough sanctions since 2011. The first round, which was international sanctions endorsed by the United Nations was imposed early in the decade to bring the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. That round officially ended in January 2016 when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal came into effect. The second round of crippling sanctions was imposed in 2018 by former US President Donald Trump who withdrew from the JCPOA rejecting it as a weak agreement and demanding not only nuclear but other sweeping concessions from Tehran.

Afghanistan depends heavily on the Iranian market although it has remote borders with China whose region is mountainous and not suitable for a land corridor. As the case of Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan, these borders have so far been insecure and practically a war zone. Similarly, security has been absent in the northern borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, leaving Iran as the mainland exporter.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.