In the conflict in Afghanistan, there are few stranger bedfellows than Iran and the Taliban. The former is the spiritual hub of Shiite Islam, while the latter is a vociferously anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalist movement. Changing circumstances, however, have brought the onetime foes into a kind of partnership. Whatever its ideological differences with the insurgent outfit, Tehran has every reason to maintain its tactical partnership with the Taliban — while also keeping its ties to the Afghan government.
Kabul's New Coast
As a regional heavyweight, Iran has long been involved in Afghan affairs. The Islamic republic, for instance, has recruited fighters from Afghanistan's Shiite Hazara community and from its own 3 million-strong Afghan refugee population to fill out the Fatemiyoun Brigade it has fighting alongside government forces in Syria. Tehran and Kabul also have pursued extensive economic cooperation, especially on the Chabahar port on Iran's Arabian Sea coast. In May 2016, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed an agreement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to develop the port, a $31 billion project.
For Iran, Chabahar is critical to diversifying the country's port access beyond Bandar Abbas, which currently processes 85 percent of its seaborne traffic. For landlocked Afghanistan, the venture represents an opportunity to break its reliance on Pakistani ports. India, meanwhile, wants to use Chabahar to ease its economic inroads into Central Asia by bypassing archrival Pakistan. Rouhani, flanked by Afghan and Indian officials, formally inaugurated the first phase of the project — which has languished in developmental limbo for many years — in December 2017, two months after the first Indian shipment arrived there.
The Enemy of My Enemy
But even as Iran's leaders work with their counterparts in Kabul over Chabahar, Tehran is also reportedly offering clandestine support to the Afghan government's most potent enemy, the Taliban. The main reason for Iran's backing is the rise of the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter in Afghanistan. Unlike the Taliban, whose chief aim is to reconquer Kabul, the Khorasan group is part of a transnational jihadist movement that threatens Iran, too. (An Islamic State cell, in fact, carried out the coordinated attacks in the country's capital that killed 17 people in June 2017.) The Islamic State has been active in Afghanistan since 2015. And while it maintains a presence in 30 of Afghanistan's 399 districts, mainly in the country's eastern Nangarhar province, the group has yet to seize control of any territory. The Taliban have clashed with the newcomers in the past few months in Nangarhar and northern Jowzjan province.
In addition, the Taliban are currently staging around two attacks a week in three districts of Farah province, along the border with Iran, according to a recent BBC study. Although direct evidence of Iranian support for the attacks hasn't surfaced, previous cross-border attacks in Farah suggest that Tehran may be backing the latest offensives there. In October 2016, for example, the Afghan military fought off a three-week Taliban siege in the province, during which they killed four alleged Iranian commandos who were battling alongside the group. Iran reportedly also provides the insurgents arms, including AK-47 assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Taliban, in turn, have demonstrated an interest in cultivating deeper ties with the Islamic republic as well. In 2016, the group's leader at the time, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, visited Iran allegedly in an effort to diversify his group's sources of support. Mansoor was killed in a U.S. drone strike after he crossed into Pakistan's Balochistan province in May of that year. But five months later, the Taliban appointed an envoy to Iran in a further sign of its increasing engagement with Tehran.
Iran Hedges Its Bets
Supporting the Taliban offers Iran a way to counter the Islamic State's expansion to its east, and Tehran will feel justified in backing the insurgents so long as the transnational jihadist group has a presence in Afghanistan. Beyond counterterrorism, though, Iran wants to maintain contact with the Taliban to be in their good graces if they eventually assume a role in the Afghan government. Even the United States, which has been battling the Taliban for more than a decade and a half, has admitted that a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan likely would involve the Taliban. In that case, Iran will be well-placed to expand its reach in the South Asian country, having kept its ties with both the Taliban and the government's NATO-backed components.
Iran isn't the only regional power following this strategy. Countries such as Pakistan and Russia also have intervened in the war-torn state to safeguard their interests. While Islamabad continues to support the Taliban's leaders, Moscow reportedly has sent fuel shipments by way of Uzbekistan's Hairatan border crossing for the group to resell. (Russia's alleged support for the group is a remarkable policy reversal given that the Taliban are the descendants of the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in their 1979 invasion.)
Though there's no love lost between Iran and the Taliban, the circumstances of the day oblige Tehran to act pragmatically to ward off the Islamic State. The jihadist group's activity in the country, moreover, provides Iran with a useful pretext to maintain a presence in its long-unstable eastern neighbor. As Iran and other foreign powers use the Taliban to their own ends, the group will keep up its violent insurgency, making it hard for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan after more than 16 years of war.