Iran Braces for Life Next Door to the Taliban Once Again
(Bloomberg) -- Like the rest of the world, Iran’s looking for signs of how the Taliban intend to wield power in Afghanistan. As an immediate neighbor, it has valuable experience navigating the fundamentalist movement’s prior rule.
When the Taliban last reigned, its repression of Afghanistan’s Shiite minority and the 1998 killing of 11 Iranian diplomats almost sparked armed conflict. Refugees and drugs flowed across the border, and Sunni jihadists found an Afghan home next door to an Iranian regime they despised.
Iran’s now relying on those years of quiet engagement to reach a form of accommodation with the new reality. Its aim is to prevent another destabilizing exodus across the 900-kilometer (560-mile) frontier, contain the threat posed by a new generation of militants belonging to Islamic State, and to protect Tehran’s growing trade with Afghanistan as its economy remains strangled by American sanctions.
Iranian officials “recognized that the Taliban inexorably is a part of realities on the ground,” said Diako Hosseini of Tehran’s Center for Strategic Studies, which advises the presidency. “Continuing enmity between Iran and the Taliban could unleash a relentless clash on the border.”
On Wednesday, Tehran said it will bar Afghans from crossing from Afghanistan, reversing a pledge to temporarily house people fleeing the Taliban. Iran’s Foreign Ministry has said diplomats had left three of its missions in Afghanistan but were still present in Kabul and Herat.
A diplomat briefed on Tehran’s position, who asked not to be named, said Iran talked to the Taliban because instability in Afghanistan would make its way across the border. There was skepticism in Iran about Taliban protestations this week that it’s now a more moderate movement, the diplomat said.
Iran’s state broadcaster, one of the country’s most conservative and heavily-controlled institutions, has though been pushing the line that today’s Taliban are different, in what appears to be an attempt to encourage Iranians to reconsider the group.
On one recent show, an Iranian documentary filmmaker said he’d recorded Taliban who sent their daughters to school, but hadn’t used the footage so not to appear as supporting the militants. In a separate discussion, a commentator drew a distinction between the Taliban and Islamic State, with the former having “genuine support among many different factions and tribal groups outside of the big cities.”
Near to the frontier, an Afghan member of parliament saw things similarly. Iranian authorities are “looking forward to strengthening ties with the Taliban” to protect their eastern flank and boost commerce, said Abdul Nasir Farahi, who represents Farah province.
“Whatever group gains power in Afghanistan, the country will still need food and construction materials and so on,” Hossein Salimi, head of the Iran-Afghanistan chamber of commerce, said before the Taliban romped into Kabul. “Their best option is Iran.”
Iran’s contacts with the Taliban gathered pace after the Trump administration announced last year it planned to completely withdraw from Afghanistan, and again in recent weeks as the militants captured swaths of territory.
Last month, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who remains a key part of Iran’s Afghanistan policy even as he’s due to leave office shortly when a new ultraconservative president installs his team, hosted the Taliban for talks intended to broker dialog with other Afghan factions and ethnic blocs.
On Sunday, Zarif endorsed a proposal from Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai for a “coordination council” of Afghan leaders to enable “a peaceful transition,” and the next day he met with China’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, Yue Xiaoyong.
The two officials central to Iran’s future approach to the resurgent Taliban are likely to be Zarif’s successor, hawkish Foreign Ministry veteran Hossein Amirabdollahian, and General Esmail Qa’ani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force.
Qa’ani, appointed after his predecessor Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike, has long experience in Afghan affairs.
Ties will also hinge on whether the Taliban’s claims to have abandoned some of its more brutal applications of power turn out to be true, and how effectively it can control a vast and rugged Afghan terrain.
Millions of Afghan Shiites who fled Taliban persecution in the 1990s still live in Iran, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that in 2019, 90% of world opium, 72% of the world morphine and 20% of the world heroin were seized by Iran.
“The hope is that the experience of the Taliban 20 years ago would be taken seriously and some of the mistakes they made won’t be repeated,” said Foad Izadi, a professor at the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran. “If not, then it’s going to be a difficult situation.”
Iran’s government and military “realized some time ago that the Taliban were gaining strength” against a weak government in Kabul, Izadi said. “Because of these facts, they established a working relationship with the Taliban. It’s not because they particularly like them.”
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