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Iran and Taliban, Conflict or Cooperation?

Zahra Akbari*

Since Obama's presidency, US military forces in Afghanistan have dwindled. But early in the Biden’s presidency, we witnessed the abrupt and comprehensive withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan; an action that caused a lot of unrest in Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, Taliban’s movements have increased and we witness Taliban has taken control over Kabul and is about to declare the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan.

 As it can be indicated from Afghanistan status-que, the United States has been a temporary cure for terrorism during its 20-year presence in Afghanistan and has never taken steps to strengthen the Afghan national government. In fact, it is the constant strategy of the United States to keep other nations dependent on itself, as such a case happened in Iraq. As withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, the United States put the Ashraf Ghani government under pressure to release 5,000 Talib prisoners. This has both doubled the power of the Taliban and shown that the abrupt withdrawal of the United States and the re-empowerment of the Taliban have pursued certain goals.
Shortly after the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghans’ lands (which, of course, is not yet complete and may never be complete), widespread unrest broke out in Afghanistan, and Taliban immediately proceeded to occupy the provinces which surprisingly faced on or little resistance from Afghan Government and army. Most notably, the United States had sought to negotiate with the Taliban before evacuating Afghanistan, which is a kind of de facto recognition of this group. Apparently, the re-empowerment of the Taliban is in line with US interests; There are several reasons for this claim: one is that the Taliban's gaining power has increased the movements of terrorist groups in Pakistan, the way of the Silk Road. Considering the severe trade competition between China and the United States sheds more light on this reason. The second reason can be understood concerning that China and Afghanistan are coterminous. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in western China and the Xinjiang region is one of the Achilles Heels of China, which is likely to be stimulated as the Taliban gain power. So, the Taliban presence in Afghanistan, as a neighbor of China and Pakistan, could provide part of US interests; that is why the Chinese foreign minister hosted a diplomatic delegation from the Taliban to ensure that this group have no contact with Muslims in Xinjiang. The request was also embraced by the Taliban, who emphasized on not to support and cooperate with terrorist groups. Moreover, the re-emergence of the Taliban could cause trouble for Russia and its security ally, Turkmenistan. The same issue prompted Moscow, like Beijing, to make sure the Taliban would not cooperate with ISIS. This is the issue which the Taliban has once again embraced and emphasized its contrast with ISIS and its opposition to the Islamic State.
But, meanwhile, the main issue is Iran's neighborhood with Afghanistan. The Taliban’s regaining power has and will have impact on Iran more than any other country. Iran and the Taliban have had tense relations during past years, especially after the assassination of Iranian diplomats and journalists in Mazar-e-Sharif. They have also deep and seemingly insurmountable conflicts in terms of governing model and political thinking, as well as in terms of ideology and religious outlook. As the Taliban becomes more active, we will see a resurgence of Afghan migrants to Iran, which will be a double burden and a problematic issue in the current fragile economic conditions of Iran. At the same time, the entry and infiltration of Taliban forces into the country, which target Iran's security, is not far-fetched. On the other hand, it is likely to witness drug trafficking to Iran and turning Iran into a passage for its to Europe.
Iran's main challenge in Afghanistan and the Taliban is to take the best approach towards this country and this group which claim to have transformed. Today, the Taliban is trying to show itself more flexible and civilized, is shunning terrorist groups, and is pursuing a policy of cooperation and integration with and respect for its neighbors. Inside, he claims to cooperate with the people and apparently wants to dissociate himself from his past violence, letting women to continue their jobs and assuring every one of their human rights to be protected. Despite these changes in Taliban’s outlook and approach, it can be also probable that all these appeasements and collaboration is an impermanent approach, taken just to obtain the powers’ trust (including China, Russia, and most significantly US).
It seems to be two approaches for the Islamic Republic of Iran in the face of the new situation in Afghanistan: one is to fight the Taliban; whether in the form of a proxy war or through a coalition of their opponents. And the second is to interact and cooperate with it and to mediate between the conflicting groups. Some believe that the Taliban, which is fed and supported by Saudi Arabia and possibly the United States, should be fought as an extremist and dangerous ideology in Iran's neighborhood, while Iran cannot afford the expenses of getting involved in a confrontation with this group, and the military collision in this country will only increase insecurity on Iran's borders, stir other terrorist groups, increase immigration to Iran, and thousands of other problems. It should also be noted that the Taliban comprise just one-third of the anti-government forces, and fighting them leads to fighting other opponent groups, and ultimately sparks widespread unrest.
Considering the second approach, it should be noticed that the Taliban's power is not easily restrained and they will not be content with part of power and sovereignty in Afghanistan. That is why Russia and China have come into official contact with the Taliban in such a short period of time, and it seems that they have taken into account the Taliban's promise to maintain the border security of their neighbors. The Islamic Republic of Iran must be aware that there is currently no military capability to confront the Taliban, so the best way is to mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan anti-Taliban movements. In fact, a political and diplomatic solution is the best answer. But this mediation and even the invitation of the Taliban delegation to Tehran does not mean that Iran has strongly believed the profound ideological transformation of this group; which even based on the author’s perspective, the Islamic Republic of Iran negotiates with the Taliban pessimistically. But to maintain contact and influence in this important neighbor, Iran must be able to sit at the table with all weighty groups in Afghanistan, and this never means forgetting the Taliban crimes, purging them and trusting them. However, in the current situation, Iran must have its own cost-benefit account. The Iranian conflict in Yemen, Syria and Palestine does not leave much room for spending energy and money in Afghanistan, and if Iran enters the mire of a military conflict in Afghanistan, in addition to severe financial losses, it would concede the Yemeni front to Saudi Arabia and lose power in Syria, what exactly America is seeking for.
Finally, it should be emphasized that even considering the Taliban flexibility and compromise with the others is symbolic and temporary, it should be used to reach an agreement and make peace between the Afghan groups and the central government, with Iran merely playing the role of a mediator and avoiding a full-scale engagement in the probable US trap in Afghanistan.


*Member of the Editorial Board of Iranian Journal of International Relations


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