Michael Kugelman, a senior South Asia associate at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, says relations between the hard-line Sunni Taliban and Iran’s Shi'ite clerical regime are growing, despite suspicions that Tehran aided the May 21 U.S. drone attack that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur after he returned to Pakistan from neighboring Iran.
RFE/RL: Is the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan such a big threat that Iran developed links with the Taliban?
Michael Kugelman: There certainly are good reasons for Iran to maintain relations with the Taliban, and certainly shared concern about the rising profile of IS in Afghanistan is one reason. I would argue that we tend to exaggerate the threat of IS in Afghanistan.
Certainly, you have several thousand militants, most of whom formerly had been members of the Taliban who were based in Nangarhar and eastern Afghanistan, but it's only a few thousand, and as far as I know the Taliban loyalists have been able to defeat these IS-aligned militants. These IS-aligned militants in Afghanistan are not formally connected to the [main] IS organization -- the main IS organization in Iraq and Syria. There is really no indication that they're taking direct orders from IS in the Middle East.
So I think that certainly Iran and the Taliban both are worried about IS, but I think there are other reasons for the two to be together -- one, quite frankly, being that Iran wants to have a hedging strategy. It realizes that the Taliban is a very significant non-state actor in Afghanistan. It controls more territory than it has at any time since 2001. And so it simply does not want to ignore or push away an organization as significant as that.
RFE/RL: So how is the U.S. looking at this and what’s its impact on the region?
Kugelman: I imagine that the U.S. knows that Iran and the Taliban have had ties. I imagine that U.S. knows that the Taliban opened an office in a city in Iran about four years ago. But of course, you have a very delicate diplomatic situation where the U.S. recently concluded a big nuclear deal with Iran, and I think it wants to try to improve a relationship that as you know for so long has been tense and hostile.
I imagine that this is of course only speculation that the U.S. actually may have used those links between the Taliban and Iran to help get Mullah Mansur. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran helped the United States know where Mullah Mansur was in Iran. Because it appears very clear that Mullah Mansur was in Iran the day that he was killed in [the southwestern Pakistani province of] Balochistan.
So, Iran plays a double game with the Taliban. On the one hand, it remains close to the government in Kabul. The relationship between Iran and Afghanistan is fairly good. But you know at the same time Iran has provided or allowed the Taliban to set up an office in Iran. It has provided arms and money to the Taliban, and I imagine that the U.S. is aware of this and it’s trying to exploit this very complex relationship with between Iran and the Taliban to get the Iranians to help the United States deal with the Taliban because it knows Iran has these links with the Taliban.
RFE/RL: Ideologically, the Taliban are close to Saudi Arabia and Sunni Gulf Arab countries. Reportedly most of their funding comes from individuals in these countries. How are the Gulf Arabs looking at the seemingly growing relationship between the Taliban and Tehran?
Kugelman: The Taliban are much closer to the Gulf countries. They certainly have received a fair amount of support from countries of the Gulf, and the Taliban are certainly more aligned with the Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East than with Shia Iran. That's a basic point that’s very important to state: Iran is by no means close to the Taliban. It's not even a good friend.
Let's not forget that more than 15 years ago, there was an attack on Iranian diplomats in a consulate in [northern] Afghanistan, and most sources seem to think the Afghan Taliban [was] behind it. Some say it was a Pakistani group that did it, but clearly there's a lot of hostility and a lot of baggage historically in Iran's relationship with the Taliban.
RFE/RL: Do you think this means Iran’s ties with the Taliban will not come to an end even after Mansur’s death?
Kugelman: I imagine that the ties between Iran and the Taliban will continue. They certainly won't come to an end and in fact, if anything they may intensify. And that's the cost of continued concerns about the rise of IS in Afghanistan. And also just because it's such a turbulent uncertain time in Afghanistan and because the Taliban insurgency remains so strong and Iran simply will not want to try to ignore the Taliban given the fact that the Taliban is a significant player in Afghanistan.
I think in Tehran, given the situation in Afghanistan, given how strong the Taliban is and given the history of ties between the Taliban and Iran, it's simply not time to end these ties. I think there is a genuine shared concern between the Taliban and the Iranian government about what IS could do in Afghanistan.
Even if at this point all you have in Afghanistan is several thousand IS-aligned militants, there certainly is a concern that that could intensify especially with perhaps the number of Mullah Mansur’s supporters upset that he's been killed [who] could abandon the Taliban and join those IS-aligned groups.
The Taliban are very fragmented, a lot of militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan are very fragmented, and there's certainly concern of splinter groups appearing that could throw their allegiance to IS in Afghanistan. That could really make things more tough. All of these calculations, I think, make it very unlikely that the Taliban and Iran would try to distance themselves from each other anytime soon.