In many respects, the ascendance of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency has raised optimism for the prospects of a limited rapprochement between the United States and Iran. This is the case even as the United States and Iran stand diametrically opposed on a host of critical issues. Analysts and journalists continue to pay close attention to the peculiarities of Iranian foreign policy, with subjects such as the diplomacy surrounding its nuclear ambitions, its alliances with the Ba’athist regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon and its rivalry with Israel and Saudi Arabia tending to attract the most coverage. In contrast, Iran’s posture toward its eastern neighbor Afghanistan has received short shrift. In light of the ongoing drawdown of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployment and plans to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the future of Afghanistan is very much in question.
Given the historic animosity between Iran and the Taliban and Iran’s avowed friendship with the regime of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, signs that the longtime enemies may have forged ahead with a quiet diplomatic track independent of other political proceedings have fueled speculation about Iran’s intentions toward Afghanistan. These developments have surfaced at a particularly difficult juncture for the Karzai regime. To date, the Karzai regime’s attempts to engage the Taliban in peace talks have proved fruitless. While the Taliban has accepted the principle of peace negotiations, it has rejected Kabul’s advances. Its official position is that it will not enter into formal peace talks with its Afghan adversaries while foreign troops are in Afghanistan (TOLO News [Kabul], June 23; al-Jazeera [Doha], June 19). These reports have also come during a period of heightened tensions between Washington and Kabul over a number of issues. The Karzai regime has raised concerns regarding the scope of U.S. military activities in Afghanistan and Washington’s diplomatic approach to the Taliban. The United States has signaled its readiness to engage the Taliban in fostering a peace agreement, acquiescing in principle in 2012 to the establishment of a formal representation in Doha, Qatar, to facilitate the Taliban’s participation in peace negotiations with Kabul (see Terrorism Monitor, February 12, 2012).
Afghan authorities have raised concerns about Iran’s motives in dealing with the Taliban through the Qatar-based representation. The Karzai regime perceives attempts by foreign outside actors, such as Iran and the United States, to interact unilaterally with the Taliban as an affront to its sovereignty and legitimacy (Hasht-e-Sobh [Kabul], June 4). The Karzai regime is furious over a number of actions taken by the Taliban’s Qatar-based representatives, such as the Taliban’s decision to hoist its flag outside of its Doha office along with a sign reading “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The office was supposed to have opened as the “Afghan Taliban Political Office in Doha.” For Kabul, these actions demonstrate the Taliban’s true intention: operating a shadow government-in-exile to undermine Kabul’s authority (TOLO News, June 24). The timing of the Taliban’s provocative actions in Qatar is also telling. In an attempt to humiliate the Karzai regime, they coincided with NATO’s formal handover of security responsibilities to Afghan authorities (TOLO News, June 24; al-Jazeera, June 18). Reports of diplomatic contacts between Iran and the Taliban have also occurred amid efforts between Pakistan and the Taliban’s ideological progeny the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to begin peace talks (Dawn [Karachi], May 23). Given this context, reports suggesting that the Taliban dispatched a diplomatic delegation to Tehran in late May to participate in secret talks with Iranian officials merit closer scrutiny (Fars News Agency [Tehran], June 1).
Iran and the Taliban have issued different accounts of the circumstances behind their alleged talks. Iran’s Fars News Agency was the first media outlet to report on the meetings, though the report did not disclose many details about the nature of the meetings. However, it did state that the Taliban delegation met with Iranian security officials and underlined Iran’s commitment toward fostering peace in Afghanistan. The report also mentioned that a separate delegation of Taliban officials had traveled to Iran earlier in the year to attend Iran’s annual Islamic Awakening conference in April (Fars News Agency, June 1). The political delegation representing the Taliban is said to have consisted of Sayyid Tayyab Agha, Mawlawi Shabuddin Delawar and Shir Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, although some reports claimed that additional officials travelled with the delegation (Arman-e-Melli [Kabul], June 12; Fars News Agency, June 1). These three representatives operate out of the Taliban’s formal political mission in Qatar, which was inaugurated in June (al-Jazeera, June 18). Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Araqchi dismissed reports that the aforementioned talks had taken place (Press TV [Tehran], June 2). In a possible attempt to divert attention away from the events in Tehran while also assuaging the concerns of the Karzai regime, Iran announced that it opposed the principle of discussions between the United States and the Taliban and any other proceedings that do not include the active participation of Kabul (Press TV, June 22).
While Iran has remained coy about its dealings with the Taliban, an official statement issued by the Voice of Jihad, the official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (a.k.a. the Afghan Taliban), provided further details. In the statement, Taliban spokesman Qari Muhammad Yusuf Ahmadi confirmed the initial reports published in Iranian media describing the aforementioned diplomatic meetings to discuss what he called “issues of mutual interest.” The statement did not contain additional details about the topics discussed during the purported diplomatic talks. It did acknowledge that Taliban representatives delivered a speech during the Islamic Awakening Conference that addressed a variety of topics, including the political demands of the Taliban, the current situation in Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran. The statement added that the Taliban had previously participated in international forums held in France and Japan and that the Islamic Emirate is eager to cooperate with its neighbors on the basis of “mutual respect.”  Iran has hosted Taliban delegations during previous Islamic Awakening Conferences that included former ranking members of the organization. Iran’s dealings with the Taliban in this capacity are likely to have been intended to cultivate influence within the various Taliban factions and to outflank other major actors with a stake in Afghanistan (such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) in the lead-up to a negotiated peace framework to end the war in Afghanistan (al-Jazeera, January 3, 2012).
Afghan media reactions reflected the uncertainty surrounding the purported meetings by offering varied descriptions of the events in question. According to one account, the Taliban officials dispatched to Tehran were operating under what was labeled to be “great U.S. influence.” The same report also stated that Iranian officials implored their Afghan counterparts to devote themselves to politics and participate in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled to be held in April, 2014 (Weesa [Kabul], June 9). Another report alleged that the Taliban operates an official liaison office in Tehran. The same report also suggested that the extent of the political relationship between Iran and the Taliban includes regular contacts (Afghan Channel 1 [Kabul], June 2).
Background to Rapprochement
Enmity has marked Iran’s relationship with the Taliban over the years. The Taliban’s style of ultraconservative Sunni fundamentalism has always been hostile to Shia Iran. The Taliban view Shia believers as heretics and apostates. The Taliban’s brutal treatment of Afghan Shia minorities such as the ethnic Hazara community, which has endured persecution and atrocities, reveals the extent of its hostility toward Shia Islam. Iran threatened to invade Afghanistan in 1998 following the Taliban’s killing of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in September of that year. Iran’s longtime support in coordination with Russia and India for the opposition Northern Alliance – the numerous militias that resisted Taliban rule from parts of northern Afghanistan over the years leading up to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, is another source of antagonism between Iran and the Taliban. Iran’s antipathy for the Taliban was strong enough to disregard its hostility towards the United States: Iran lent the United States intelligence support to aid the U.S. objective of toppling the Taliban and neutralizing al-Qaeda during Operation Enduring Freedom. Iran quickly emerged as an important source of diplomatic, economic and humanitarian support to the U.S.-backed Karzai government. In regards to their shared antipathy towards the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Iranian and U.S. interests on Afghanistan, on the surface, have largely converged. However, the steady upsurge in tension between Iran and the United States, combined with a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, would eventually raise questions about possible Iranian involvement in aiding and abetting Taliban operations targeting U.S. forces (see Terrorism Monitor, November 6, 2009).
Questions remain regarding the extent (or veracity) of the political contacts forged between Iran and the Taliban in recent months. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Iran’s interests and influence in Afghanistan are extensive. A sizeable segment of Iran’s population shares ethnic, cultural, religious and language ties with millions of Afghans. As a consequence of their geographic proximity, the deterioration of Afghanistan has impacted Iran profoundly on numerous levels. Over one million Afghan refugees currently reside in Iran (Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), November 1). The expansion of the Afghan opium trade – Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer – is blamed for being a contributing factor in the high prevalence of opium consumption among Iranians. Iran is widely believed to have the highest rate of opium addicts per capita in the world (Economist [London], August 13). Iran also struggles to secure its border with Afghanistan, which serves as a busy transit point for narcotics, arms and human smugglers. These issues remain points of contention between Iran and the Taliban even while both sides appear to be engaging in back-channel diplomacy. For example, the Taliban publicly condemned Iran for the killing of Afghan migrants in May by Iranian security officers who had strayed into Iranian territory from Afghanistan. The Taliban also advised Iran to approach future incidents through a consideration of neighborly rights and Islamic values. 
The fluctuating geopolitics of the Middle East is also shaping Iran’s approach toward the Taliban. Given their history of animosity, Iran has an interest in mitigating potential security threats emanating from the Taliban. Iran is wary of a resurgent Taliban that is likely to emerge as the dominant actor in Afghanistan (and, potentially, Pakistan) following the withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO forces. The growing politicization of sectarianism in the Middle East is also affecting Iran’s outlook. Iran’s support for Syria and Hezbollah has rendered it a target of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies that are themselves lending supporting to hardline Salafist and other Sunni extremist currents around the Arab world and greater Middle East.
Iran is experiencing a renewed bout of terrorist and insurgent violence in its southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan by an obscure militant current that blends ethnic Baloch nationalism with an extremist Salafist discourse that is virulently anti-Shia and evocative of al-Qaeda’s kind of radicalism. The emergence of the Harakat Ansar Iran (Movement of the Partisans of Iran) and, more recently, Jaysh al-Adl (Army of Justice), appear to seek inspiration from the now defunct Jundallah (Soldiers of God) movement that was implicated in scores of attacks against Iranian security and civilian targets in recent years. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia, among others, of supporting these organizations (al-Jazeera, November 7; see Terrorism Monitor, November 15, 2012). Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries (the other two being Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]) to have recognized the Taliban before the September 11, 2001, attacks. As a result, Iran would be well served to reach an accommodation with the Taliban, even on limited terms, so as to outmaneuver Saudi Arabia on issues that affect Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria.
On a more subtle level, Iran is also looking to position itself as an indispensable force for stability in Afghanistan following the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces. This amplifies Iran’s diplomatic leverage on a host of issues that extend beyond Afghanistan, including future deliberations over its nuclear program, the future of Syria and the removal of economic sanctions. Iran is also likely to be looking to bolster its position in light of growing regional and international interests – political, security, and economic – that are rapidly expanding their respective footholds in Afghanistan, particularly those of Pakistan, China, India and Russia (National [Abu Dhabi], May 5). By the same token, Iran may also be seeking to cultivate contacts and sympathetic figures within the Taliban should the situation in Afghanistan destabilize further after the eventual withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO forces.
For its part, the Taliban also seems committed to working with Iran for the purposes of enhancing its diplomatic leverage in the current political environment with an eye on the day after the foreign forces depart Afghanistan. The Taliban may also be trying to weaken Iran’s relationship with the Karzai regime and other traditionally anti-Taliban factions. According to one assessment, the Taliban’s outreach to Iran is designed to persuade Iran to refrain from providing support to anti-Taliban forces when foreign forces leave Afghanistan. The Taliban delegation is reported to have assured its Iranian counterparts that factions representing different ethnic, religious and political groups will be formally represented in any future post-NATO order (Pajhwok Afghan News [Kabul], June 3). Moreover, the political optics surrounding its alleged dealings with Iran was not lost on the Taliban. Cognizant of the Karzai regime’s current difficulties and its unease over the progression of regional diplomacy toward a peace agreement in Afghanistan, the Taliban touted a sampling of observations produced by analysts and journalists that present its position in a positive light in contrast to Kabul’s diminishing prospects in a report issued on its official website.  The report highlighted commentary published by Western and regional media outlets that portrayed the Taliban’s recent dealings with Iran as a sign of its growing international legitimacy in contrast to Kabul’s declining diplomatic leverage and growing nervousness over the course of regional events. It also referenced reports that described the Taliban’s representation in Qatar as serving the role of an official embassy.
Uncertainty continues to cloud the claims describing Iran’s back-channel exchanges with the Taliban. But the political sensitivities involved are conducive to surreptitious dealings, even on matters of great strategic importance. With Afghanistan expected to endure an especially tense and difficult 2014, its long-term future is as likely to be shaped by decisions concluded behind closed doors as ones made in the view of the Afghan public.
Chris Zambelis is a Senior Analyst specializing in Middle East affairs for Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. He is also the director of World Trends Watch, Helios Global’s geopolitical practice area.
1. See “Remarks of Qari Yousuf Ahmadi regarding visits to the Islamic Republic of Iran by delegations of Islamic Emirate,” Voice of Jihad (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan), June 4, 2013, http://shahamat-english.com/index.php/paighamoona/32277-remarks-of-qari-yousuf-ahmadi-regarding-visits-to-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-by-delegations-of-islamic-emirate.
2. See “Declaration of the Islamic Emirate regarding the incidents in the border regions with Iran and Pakistan,” Voice of Jihad (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan), May 13, 2013, http://shahamat-english.com/index.php/paighamoona/31413-declaration-of-the-islamic-emirate-regarding-the-incidents-in-the-border-regions-with-iran-and-pakistan.
3. See “The official visit of Taliban to Iran in the eyes of the analysts,” Voice of Jihad (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan), June 10, 2013, http://shahamat-english.com/index.php/articles/32565-the-official-visit-of-taliban-to-iran-in-the-eyes-of-the-analysts (accessed November 2013).