Last week 2 U.S. media outlets aired the unsubstantiated claim that Iran was responsible for downing a helicopter in Afghanistan which killed 30 U.S. military personnel. This type of baseless fear-mongering is nothing new. Right-wing pundits and media commentators have been making similar statements for years.
But what is the real nature of Iran’s relationship with the Taliban? According to Mohsen Milani, chairman of the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida, Iran and the Taliban are ideological foes who share certain strategic interests, or rather, common enemies. While relations remain limited, the two have been brought closer together by the continued US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan.
An Iran Primer Q&A with Milani which I’ve republished below discusses Iran’s ties to the Taliban.
• What is the status of Iran’s relations with the Taliban today? Have there been significant changes since 2001?
The Islamic Republic of Iran has no official relation with the Taliban. Nor do the Taliban have an office or a representative in Tehran, as do many non-state actors, such as HAMAS. At the same time, Tehran has recognized that the Taliban have remarkable resiliency and are an integral component of the Afghan society that cannot be ignored. As there have been persistent reports that President Hamid Karzai, the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia all have opened their channels of communications with the Taliban, Tehran is determined not to become marginalized and seems to have tried to open its own non-diplomatic and secret channels of communication. But the Taliban are not monolithic, and it is not clear which faction Iran is seeking to establish relations.
• How has Iran’s view of the Taliban changed since the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001?
Iran’s views of the Taliban have changed considerably since 2001. Iran did not recognize the Taliban government and considered them an ideological nemesis and a major security threat that was created by Pakistan’s ISI, with generous financial support from Saudi Arabia partly for the purpose of spreading Wahhabism and undermining Iran. When the Taliban were in power in the 1990s, Iran, along with India and Russia, provided significant support to the Northern Alliance, which was the principal opposition force to Taliban rule and eventually dislodged them. Iran also contributed to dismantling the Taliban regime and to establishing a new government in Kabul in 2001.
Today, the Taliban have evolved into a formidable armed organization fighting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Ironically, the strategic interests of Tehran and Taliban have converged today, as each, independent of the other and for different reasons, oppose the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and demand their immediate and unconditional withdrawal.
• Is Iran providing tangible financial, military or political support for the Taliban?
There have been numerous public reports about support for the Taliban coming from Iran. There are reports that elements within the Revolutionary Guards may have transferred long-range rockets to the Taliban and provided training for the Taliban. In February 2011, British forces reportedly intercepted in Afghanistan a shipment of 48 122-mm rockets that they claimed had originated from Iran. Spokesmen of the Islamic Republic have consistently denied all these allegations. Such denials, even if we assume their validity, do not preclude the possibility that non-state actors within Iran may be used by the government to provide weapons or training to some factions within the Taliban organization.
From a strategic perspective, the Iranian government looks at the Taliban as a useful enemy that is undermining the interests of its other enemy, namely the United States. Therefore, it should not be surprising at all if the Iranian government supports the Taliban or if it looks the other away as behind-the-scenes support is provided by Iran’s non-state actors to the Taliban. Such support, however, appears to be very limited. The apparent goal is to empower the Taliban sufficiently to remain a major headache to the United States, but not to an extent that would allow them to seriously undermine the Karzai government or become the dominant force in all of Afghanistan.
• What is Tehran’s position on a Taliban-controlled government in Kabul?
A Taliban-dominated government is clearly not in Iran’s long-term interests, since it would generate considerable tension and conflict between Iran and Afghanistan and would inevitably lead Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, becoming dominant foreign powers in Afghanistan, which Tehran vehemently opposes. At the same time, Tehran has for many years maintained that political stability in Afghanistan can be achieved only if the government reflects the rich ethnic and sectarian diversity of Afghanistan itself. Iran, more than anything else, wants to see a stable and friendly government in Kabul. Tehran now seems convinced that without Taliban participation in the government, as a partner but not as the main force, stability would be unattainable.
• What is the state of Tehran’s relations with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai?
The bilateral relationship remains friendly, but not devoid of tension. Karzai has deftly managed to simultaneously have good relations with Tehran and Washington. Tehran continues with its heavy involvement in Afghan reconstruction, and trade between the two countries has increased substantially.
Still, Tehran has not abandoned its support for its traditional allies among the non-Pushtun Afghans, notably the Northern Alliance and the Shiite Hazarats. Tehran continues to express its displeasure with the way Kabul has handled the relatively free crossing of the Jondollah terrorist group into Iran, and with the flow of narcotics into Iran.
The major tension between Kabul and Tehran, however, is their diametrically opposed views regarding the presence and future of U.S./NATO troops. Tehran has attempted in vain to convince Karzai to call for the withdrawal of Western troops. Tensions between the two neighbors are likely to increase if there is a new agreement between Washington and Kabul about establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
• How does Iranian influence in Afghanistan compare to its influence in Iraq? Which of the two countries is more important to Iran strategically?
Strategically, economically, and ideologically, Iraq is much more important than Afghanistan for Iran. Iran also exerts much more influence and has much more leverage in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Iran’s friends are much more organized in Iraq than they are in Afghanistan. Trade between Iran and Iraq has increased substantially, surpassing trade between Iran and Afghanistan. Iraq is now one of Iran’s major trading partners.
Politically and ideologically, Iran is much closer to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad than to the Sunni/Pushtun-dominated government of Hamid Karzai. While good relations with Karzai are important for Tehran, the relationship does not have profound international ramifications. Afghanistan’s strategic importance for Iran lies in the fact that American troops are stationed there. The case of Iraq is fundamentally different. Close relations between Tehran and Baghdad — two major oil exporters — or a political alliance between the two would be a game changer and would have significant economic ramifications for the world. It could also change the strategic balance of power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.