A new look at Iran’s complicated relationship with the Taliban

Eight years ago, I took part in a meeting among people from several different countries — Iran, various European countries, Afghanistan, Turkey, and the United States. I was a part-time consultant to the U.S. government at the time, and most of the group had been or — at least — were close to government officials. These are known as “track-two meetings.” During one of the sessions, a European participant charged Iran with supplying military aid to the Taliban. A retired Iranian diplomat responded indignantly. “How could Iran supply aid to its sworn enemies?” he asked. I responded that Iranians were not such simple-minded people that they could have only one enemy or one policy at a time.

Iran’s position on the agreement between the United States and the Afghan Taliban signed in Qatar earlier this year may likewise appear confusing. In 1998, Iran nearly went to war with Afghanistan, then mostly under Taliban rule, when Pakistani fighters allied with the Taliban killed 11 Iranian civilians in Mazar-i Sharif, including nine diplomats. In 2001, Iran helped the United States remove and replace Taliban rule in Afghanistan with both military and intelligence support on the ground in Afghanistan and diplomatic support at the U.N. talks on Afghanistan in Bonn. For years, Iran opposed political outreach to the Taliban and rejected any distinction between them and al-Qaeda. As the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan approached its 20th anniversary and the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic and imposed additional sanctions, Iran echoed the Taliban in calling for the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, the main Taliban demand that the United States met in the Doha agreement. Iran also began supplying Taliban commanders in western Afghanistan with weapons both to send a message to the United States and to deal with threats on or close to the Afghan-Iranian border. Yet Iran has also been the most outspoken country in the world in denouncing the agreement, claiming that it amounted to recognition by the United States of the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which Tehran says constitutes a threat to the national security of Iran. Iranian officials who welcomed Taliban Deputy Leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to Tehran, something Donald Trump could only dream of doing at Camp David, claim they told the Taliban that the re-establishment of the Emirate would cross a red line for Iran. Russia, which has taken the same position on the Emirate, has nonetheless endorsed the agreement as the best way to achieve its top goal in Afghanistan: ousting U.S. military forces from their bases on the former southern border of the Soviet Union. According to an Iranian official who requested anonymity to speak with me freely, Russian officials have asked their Iranian counterparts if they really want the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan or not.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.