As the United States considers the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan as part of efforts to end the longest war in its history, Iran has stepped up a diplomatic campaign to brandish its deep connections with the Taliban.
In a remarkable turnaround from two decades ago, when Iran’s Shi’ite clerical regime mobilized for war against Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamist Sunni Taliban regime, the two sides are now engaging in public diplomatic efforts. Tehran has even approached Kabul to facilitate peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
But Tehran’s diplomatic offensive has perhaps inadvertently showcased its strong ties with the Taliban. In recent years, Western and Afghan officials have accused the two of a covert alliance wherein Tehran extended military support to the Taliban in return for cooperation against the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants, who consider Iran their top enemy.
Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai says it is significant that it was senior Taliban leaders who visited Tehran and not members of the movement’s diplomatic office in Qatar.
He says recent Taliban visitors to Tehran included figures such as former Taliban regime minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Qari Yahya, a senior figure in the Haqqani network -- the Taliban’s toughest military wing considered close to Pakistan.
“This means the relationship between the two is nurtured at the top leadership level,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “In the past, Iran’s relations were focused more on anti-Taliban factions, which resulted in a huge debacle for Tehran when the Taliban swept to power in the 1990s.”
Yousafzai says Tehran’s relations with the insurgents have evolved remarkably since the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001.
He says the 2016 U.S. killing of former Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur after a trip to Iran surprised many over the relations between the two. RFE/RL Gandhara first reported on Mansur’s ties to Iran a day after his killing on May 21, 2016.
The only public contact between the two sides before Mansur’s killing was a 2015 Tehran visit by Syed Tayyab Agha, the Taliban’s political representative in Qatar.
Yousafzai says the relationship was cemented by the Taliban’s role in preventing IS from establishing a foothold in Afghanistan, particularly its southern and western provinces bordering Iran.
“Instead of the Afghan government, Tehran credits Taliban for keeping IS away from its borders,” he noted.
The two sides are now keen on explaining the logic behind their once-covert relationship.
"We should discuss the future of our country with Tehran in order to take positive steps toward strengthening friendship and peace on both sides," purported Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Iran’s state-run Iran Labor News Agency on January 5.
Mujahid said the Taliban want to nurture relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors and other countries. “Maintaining contact with Iran is very important to us,” he said.
Following talks with a Taliban delegation last week, Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi briefed Afghan officials on January 5. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said Araqchi assured Kabul that Tehran recognizes the Afghan government's sovereignty in the peace process.
In a related development, the Taliban canceled planned peace talks with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia this month and have instead asked to move the venue to Qatar, according to Reuters. Riyadh is Tehran’s main regional rival. A rupture between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has pushed the latter closer to Tehran.
A pending decision on the future of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan’s adds to such regional complexities.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that President Donald Trump is deliberating a possible withdrawal. "Well, the president is in the process of evaluating that, as we speak," Pence told Fox News in an interview broadcast on January 3.
Yousafzai says that a key role for Iran in the early stages of Afghan peace negotiations can potentially prove problematic.
“I am sure Saudi Arabia and the U.S. do not like an Iranian role in Afghan peace process,” he said. “Maybe Iran can be invited to join the process after some progress is made.”
He says Tehran’s larger objective seems to be preventing a repeat of the 1990s and to preserve its influence and interests in Afghanistan.
“This is why they have cultivated a relationship with the Taliban, so that their options are not limited if the Taliban return to power,” he said.