A quarter-century ago, Afghanistan’s hard-line Sunni Taliban movement emerged as a mortal enemy of the Shi’ite clerical regime in neighboring Iran.
But amid today’s high U.S.-Iran tensions, Tehran’s influence over the Taliban could sabotage its peace negotiations with Washington.
Days after U.S. forces killed Qasem Soleimani, the most senior Iranian military leader, senior American officials are warning of Tehran’s protentional spoiler role in preventing the Taliban from concluding a peace agreement with their country. The agreement is seen as setting a path toward ending more than four decades of war in Afghanistan.
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist specializing in covering the Taliban, says the Taliban and Iran’s clerical regime are poles apart. They adhere to different Muslim sects, and their strategic outlook is vastly dissimilar.
“Yet they have worked out a strong tactical understanding, which entails a lot of cooperation and assistance,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website on January 10.
Yousafzai says Iran ostensibly supports the Afghan peace process, which could achieve a milestone with an imminent formal agreement between the Taliban and the United States.
“Behind the scenes, however, Iran actively feeds the Taliban false hopes that they have won the war and that their resistance will force the U.S. to leave Afghanistan in humiliation,” he noted. “Such tactics are ultimately aimed at sabotaging the peace talks.”
Iranian officials, however, have repeatedly rejected assertions that they are seeking to destabilize Afghanistan.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has striven to interact with this group [the Taliban] and convince them to hold talks with the central government of Afghanistan in order to reach a solution,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in December. “We believe that our well-being is intertwined with neighboring countries’ well-being, [and] this would reduce some of the losses inflicted on the region.”
Yousafzai, however, says relations between Tehran and the Taliban have improved well beyond diplomatic niceties. He said that in November many senior Taliban leaders preferred to meet with their deputy leader and chief negotiator Mullah Baradar in Iran instead of Pakistan. Baradar visited Pakistan in October.
He says Ibrahim Sadar, the current Taliban military chief, and Mullah Gul Agha Akhund, the head of Taliban finances, were among the key figures who held consultations with Baradar in Iran. The two are also prominent leadership figures from the southern province of Helmand. Most of the world’s illicit opium and heroin supplies come from the large province, situated near Iran.
“In recent months, many mid-level Taliban commanders from Helmand were trained in Iran,” Yousafzai said of his discussions with contacts within the Taliban ranks. Since its inception in the mid-1990s, Helmand has been a key bastion for the Taliban because it supplies many key leaders and foot soldiers.
He argues that dramatic tensions between Iran and the United States might prompt Tehran to double down on the path of strengthening the Taliban military machine. “Iran can increase financial support to the Taliban and even give them advanced weapons, which will dramatically alter the face of the Afghan battlefield.” he noted.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of trying to sabotage the Afghan peace process by influencing the Taliban.
“The Taliban’s entanglement in Iran’s dirty work will only harm the Afghanistan peace process,” he told journalists on January 7. “Iran has refused to join the regional and international consensus for peace and is in fact actively working to undermine the peace process by continuing its long global effort to support militant groups there."
In addition to the Taliban, Pompeo named the Haqqanis, the Tora Bora, and the Mullah Dadullah group as part of Iran’s proxy network in Afghanistan. Long considered the Taliban’s military arm, the Haqqani network is well integrated in the insurgent organization while the other two are largely seen as insignificant splinters.
However, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen dismissed fears that tensions between Tehran and Washington will threaten their talks with the United States. "The developments will not have [a] negative impact on the peace process because the [U.S.-Taliban] peace agreement is finalized and only remains to be signed [by the two sides]," he told VOA.
In a move hinting at the Taliban’s keenness to avoid being used by Iran, the insurgents this week appointed former top military commander Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir to lead their forces in northeastern Afghanistan. In the years following the 2014 departure of most NATO troops from Afghanistan, Zakir, who also hails from Helmand, visited Iran repeatedly and is considered an architect of the group’s relations with Tehran. As a close confidant of the movement’s founder, Mullah Omar, Zakir retains considerable influence but was apparently sidelined from a leadership role in recent years.
The Taliban were on the brink of war with Iran in 1998. Tehran moved tens of thousands of troops to the border with Afghanistan after Iranian diplomats had been killed during the brief Taliban capture of Mazar-e Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. The two eventually avoided war, but Tehran supported the anti-Taliban factions united in the Northern Alliance.
Tehran extended quiet support to the U.S. attack on the Taliban regime in late 2001. But it turned against U.S. military presence after U.S. President George W. Bush declared Iran to be part of an “axis of evil” in 2002.
Soleimani’s Quds Force gradually developed links with the Taliban that deepened and strengthened after their insurgency expanded in the years following 2003.
In May 2016, the United States killed late Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province after returning from a trip to Iran. In recent years, Western and Afghan officials have repeatedly accused Tehran of supporting the Taliban with weapons and safe havens. Iranian officials have denied such accusations.
The covert alliance between the Taliban and Iran has prevented the ultra-radical Islamic State militants from establishing a foothold in western and southern Afghan provinces near the 900-kilometer-long border with Iran.