by Lobelog’s Tehran correspondent
Iranian officials have confirmed reports of a visit by an Afghan Taliban delegation to Tehran in May. But details of what transpired in these meetings have been scant.
Ismail Kosari, a conservative member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and the chair of Defense Committee of the Iranian parliament, confirmed in early June the Taliban’s trip to Tehran: “I can’t divulge any details, but what I can say is that they have declared their readiness to talk.” Kosari also emphasized Iran’s longstanding policy of negotiating with any group that wishes to solve regional problems through dialogue.
Kosari’s confirmation of the Taliban delegation’s visit to Tehran is all the more significant given his close ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He is himself a former high-ranking member of the Guards and has good relations with current senior IRGC commanders. Also pertinent in this regard is that the the Tasnim News Agency, considered the unofficial organ of the Revolutionary Guards, first revealed news of this clandestine trip by the Taliban to Iran.
Neither Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham nor Rouhani administration spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht corroborated Tasnim’s report. Both stated they were unaware that this trip had taken place. “We are not aware of such a trip and the source of this news and on what information and basis it was published should be followed up on,” Afkham stated on May 20. Nobakht declared on the same day: “I am unaware of this matter, it does not make sense and in any case I do not confirm such a visit having taken place.”
The reformist newspaper Shargh, following up on the news of the Taliban trip, conducted an interview with Mohammad-Ismail Qasim Yar, a member of the international relations committee of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Qasim Yar told the paper: “Seven or eight members of Taliban’s political office who reside in Doha, Qatar made this trip to Tehran and participated in meetings.”
These developments suggest that the revelation of a Taliban delegation having visited Tehran is not an instance of a news outlet illegally leaking classified information. Rather, Rouhani administration officials were apparently not aware of the trip.
In the seeming absence of the Foreign Ministry in the talks with the Taliban, representatives from the IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for the Guards’ foreign operations, may have been the ones who played host to the Taliban. One reformist journalist and foreign policy analyst has told LobeLog on the condition of anonymity: “Although the responsibility for diplomatic matters lies primarily with the Foreign Ministry, on security issues related to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many states in the Persian Gulf as well as some in Africa, the Quds Force is the main interlocutor. The president, foreign minister, commanders of the army and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council all have instrumental roles in shaping Iranian foreign policy at the macro level. But most covert negotiations are handled by the Quds Force. On this basis, I believe that the Taliban in Tehran met with representatives from the Quds Force.”
Role of the Islamic State
The unofficial presence in Afghanistan of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which Iran and Shia Muslims view as their biggest enemy, may be one of Iran’s most pressing concerns given it is currently engaged in a war with IS in Iraq.
Comments by commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and regular armed forces as well as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the past month signal the seriousness with which Iran views the threat IS poses to its western and eastern borders. This volatile situation may very well lead to a temporary and secret alliance between Iran and the Taliban to defeat IS in Afghanistan.
In May, on the anniversary of the 1982 liberation of the Iranian city of Khorramshahr from Iraqi forces, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani compared IS to a “plague” that more easily severs the heads of human beings than sheep. He went on to express great concern regarding IS’s rise, stating: “Anyone who does not act to inform the public about this danger and work to end this crisis is complicit in the disaster that awaits. This a grave threat and its removal is essential to our national interest.”
On the same day, the commander of the ground forces of Iran’s army, Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, dedicated the majority of a speech he delivered to the threat IS poses to Iran. Pourdastan was the first Iranian official who, four days after the trip of the Taliban delegation to Iran, confirmed the presence of IS in Afghanistan. “Today, we see the footprints of IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan and they are preparing themselves,” he stated. “Today’s battlefield, is a battlefield for ground forces.”
More significant than all of these comments was Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s speech in May in which he affirmed the readiness of the IRGC to combat any threats. Khamenei further declared: “I have received reports that that our enemies, in league with foolish officials from the Persian Gulf region—not all of them, only some—are seeking to bring proxy wars to the borders of Iran.”
Iran shares a roughly 950-kilometer border with the Afghan provinces of Herat, Farah, and Nimruz. The Taliban have a strong presence in each of these three provinces. Although the Taliban have engaged in skirmishes there with U.S. and Afghan government forces over the past 14 years, Iran’s borders with these three provinces have practically never come under attack.
In the past 10 years, terrorist attacks have occurred in Iran’s southwestern Sistan and Baluchestan province. These attacks were committed by “Jundullah,” a group that Iranian officials have consistently stated has infiltrated the country through the border with Pakistan. Significantly, Iran has never alleged the Taliban have any ties with Jundullah. Furthermore, since 2011 the Taliban have not carried out any assassinations of prominent Shia figures. In contrast to the Afghan government, the Taliban has also not voiced any kind of support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military strikes on Yemen against Houthi rebels.
With the Taliban, Against IS
All of these circumstances have apparently put the Taliban and Iran in a position to work together to defeat their mutual enemy, IS. For Iran, this is an especially salient matter as IS is most active in the Afghan province of Farah on Iran’s border.
The first clash between IS and the Taliban occurred on May 30, about 10 days after the Taliban delegation had visited Iran. The battle lasted for around 48 hours and ended with a Taliban victory. Fars News, an outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards, featured an unprecedented headline after the battle: “Taliban destroy IS in Farah.”
Mossadegh Parsa, the director of Afghanistan’s Radio Pul, said in an interview with LobeLog: “Iran in a way sees the rise of ISIS as a Western project against it, and in this context, views the Taliban as the best force in Afghanistan to use to alleviate this threat. So the meeting with the Taliban in Tehran is not unrelated to the horrifying phenomenon that is IS.” As Iran is working with Iraq’s government and indirectly coordinating with the United States to defeat IS, Iranian officials fear that, by working with the Taliban against IS, they might be accused of supporting terrorists by factions in the United States and Israel. During this overall sensitive period, the Iranian government wishes to avoid giving any such excuses to these detractors.
The immediate rebuke of Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, to a recent Wall Street Journal article claiming Iran is supporting the Taliban is evidence in this regard. Bahrami stated: “We give no support to the Taliban and will give no support to any extremist or terrorist groups.”
Iran’s likely support to the Taliban to defeat IS is in many ways similar to the US surge strategy in Iraq in 2007, which saw the United States reaching out to Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom were former Baathists and had fought U.S. forces. The United States ultimately formed an alliance with these groups that enabled it to significantly setback al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Photo: Taliban opening office in Doha, Qatar