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There goes the neighborhood: How Iran may be impacted by Taliban rule

Tehran has a long history with the Pashtuns across the border so their optimism is a bit tempered these days.

A Taliban government in Kabul will have important ramifications for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, in one way or another. However, of all Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran could be affected most negatively. 

It shares nearly 1,000 kilometers of common borders with Afghanistan. It already hosts between 2.5 and 4 million Afghan citizens and will find it difficult to cope with a possible surge of tens — or even hundreds — of thousands more Afghans who wish to flee their homeland. Moreover, as a Persian-speaking Shia majority state, it is intensely disliked by the Pashtun Taliban, who adhere to a Sunni extremist ideology. Some of Iran’s Sunni minority, especially in the impoverished and often-restive province of Sistan and Baluchistan, share the Taliban’s ideology. 

Iran also has a history of conflict with the Taliban and, in the 1990s, was a major supporter of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. In 1998, after the Taliban killed its diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, Iran almost went to war with them.

The Taliban’s swift victory has shocked the Iranians, although the current situation is somewhat different from the 1990s. For some time now, Iran has had contacts with the Taliban and has even hosted their representatives in Tehran. 

Mixed reactions and putting up a good front

Reactions in Iran to the Taliban victory have been mixed, largely depending on political tendencies. Because of their anti-Americanism, Iranian hardliners have interpreted the Taliban’s victory as a U.S. defeat and thus good for Iran.

The head of Iran’s National Security Council, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, has hailed the Taliban’s takeover and the U.S. departure from Afghanistan as a victory for the anti-imperialist forces. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and advisor to the Supreme leader, has called the new Afghanistan part of “the Resistance Axis,” which includes Syria, Hezbollah, and some Palestinian movements.

The hardliners also claim that the Taliban have changed and no longer harbor anti-Shia and anti-Iran sentiments. However, a larger number of moderate Iranian clerics, politicians, and intellectuals disagree, insisting that the hardliners are engaged in wishful thinking and blinded by their anti-Americanism.

In the skeptics’ view, the Taliban have not changed, and their more conciliatory statements regarding other ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan and towards Afghanistan’s neighbors is a tactical ploy. The skeptics believe that, after consolidating their power, the Taliban will revert to their past behavior and will forget their promises. 

In a recent article, Masih Mohajeri, the editor of the newspaper Jomhouri e Islami (Islamic Republic), criticized the simple-mindedness of those, including the Voice and Vision, Iran’s official radio and television network, who portray the Taliban as reformed.

In short, unlike those Iranian hardliners who view all regional developments through an anti-American lens and see any U.S. retrenchment as a win for Iran, most Iranians are deeply worried about what a Taliban government could mean for Iran’s internal security, economic interests, and regional position.

Security and economic risks to Iran

A major security threat to Iran is the potential flow of more Afghan refugees. Because of the U.S. sanctions, Iran could not hope for substantial aid in dealing with a new flood of refugees that would, in any event, almost certainly aggravate Iran’s existing social problems. Meanwhile, if Iran refuses to accept more Afghan refugees, it would risk the ire of those already in Iran. There have already been protests by anti-Taliban Afghan refugees in Iran.

In addition, the Taliban have some sympathizers in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, which has a substantial Sunni community, some members of which adhere to the same anti-Shia and Saudi-inspired Salafi-Wahhabi ideology as the Pashtun Taliban itself has emulated. The Imam of the Sunni mosque in the provincial capital of Zahedan, Molavi Abdul Hamid, has supported the Taliban and was jubilant over their victory.

A Taliban government could use its sympathizers to pressure Iran. It could even revive the extremist Sunni insurgents in Baluchistan, who in the 1990s and 2000s bombed mosques, attacked military posts and personnel, and promoted secession. They were helped by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Pakistan. For the most part, Islamabad did not cooperate with Iranian border guards to contain their operations and refused to return to Iran those members who fled to Pakistan. 

With the Taliban in charge, Iran could also become vulnerable to attacks by other extremist groups, such as ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), named after a province in eastern Iran, and a potentially resurgent al-Qaida.

A Taliban government would be even more uncompromising than the previous government on granting Iran’s share of the Helmand waters, thus further squeezing Tehran. Even the former president, Ashraf Ghani, had conditioned ensuring Iran its share on Tehran’s delivery of oil. 

Iran’s hopes of turning the port of Chabahar in the Gulf of Oman into a transit hub could also be set back, if not dashed altogether. Pakistan has long been unhappy with Iran’s plans for Chabahar both because of the substantial interest of India, its regional nemesis, in the port, and because of its potential position as a major competitor to Pakistan’s port of Gwadar. Islamabad could pressure the new government in Kabul to reverse President Ghani’s policy, which favored Chabahar as a route to bypass Pakistan, and use Gwadar instead. 

Iran could also lose part of its lucrative export trade with Afghanistan to countries, including Turkey, a major textile, small manufactures, and retail goods exporter, and the oil-exporting Persian Gulf Arab states.

Weakened regional position

A Taliban government would also undermine Iran’s regional position, because all of Tehran’s Sunni rivals, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have better relations with the Taliban than Tehran. The Taliban have called Turks “a brotherly people” and referred to Iran merely as a neighbor. Should the circumstances demand, Tehran’s rivals could use the Taliban to pressure Iran as the Saudis once did. 

Tehran’s limited options

Unlike in the 1990s, today Iran’s options in dealing with a Taliban-led Afghanistan are limited. Then, the Northern Alliance posed a significant challenge to the Taliban’s domination and also enjoyed the support of Russia and India. Iran was not alone in facing the Taliban. Today, there is no viable anti-Taliban coalition.

Major powers, including Russia, China, the EU, and the United States, want to engage the Taliban so as to stabilize Afghanistan. They also hope to moderate the Taliban’s behavior and safeguard their interests through dialogue. Iran would like a stable government, too, provided that the Taliban adopt a friendly posture towards Iran. But this is unlikely. 

If Iran tried to support any anti-Taliban group, it would not get help from other states as it did in the 1990s. More likely, regional states and international players would blame Iran for destabilizing Afghanistan. More seriously, if Iran intervened more directly in internal Afghan affairs, the Taliban could use their sympathizers in Iran to cause problems for Tehran. 

Unlike some Arab states and Turkey, Iran lacks the economic tools and financial resources to moderate the Taliban’s attitudes towards itself. Its only asset is that it is a convenient route for trade and a valuable source of energy. But other states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, could replace Iran in both regards. Because of its economic difficulties, Iran, too, needs its trade with Afghanistan and thus cannot fully exploit its advantages. 

In short, Iran’s only option is to placate the Taliban government, preach the virtues of religious and inter-ethnic harmony, and use its limited assets to convince the Taliban that a non-hostile relationship with Tehran is to their advantage.

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