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Yesterday's Partners, Today's Rivals: An Analysis of Iran-Taliban Relations

Post-doctorate scholar at Carleton University

Guest Contributor

On the 25th of April, Iran's state news agencies reported that the Taliban had arrested six Iranian border guards in Farah province after entering Afghan territory. Taliban forces have since handed over the arrested border guards to the "Intelligence Department" for further investigation after the alleged mistake by an Iranian representative. Iran claims that the incursion was a mistake by the guards. The event raises questions regarding the condition of bilateral relations between Iran and the Taliban since the latter came to power again in 2020.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi outlined the country’s optimism, stating that "the US’ military defeat should become an opportunity to restore life, security, and stable peace in Afghanistan". Iran was one of the few countries that kept its embassy open when the Taliban controlled Kabul. Cordial relations were partly the result of the Taliban implementing the demands made by Iran during negotiations. Iranian interests in Afghanistan include refugee flows, environmental crises, terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, and protecting minority Shia Muslim groups within Afghanistan. With it being three years since the Taliban took power, Iran’s expectations are no longer being met.

Thus far, the Taliban have refused to form an inclusive government by blocking ethnic and religious minorities from exercising political influence. The majority of positions in the Taliban’s cabinet are held by Pashtuns or figures close to Pakistan, including members of networks such as Haqqani, Mullah Baradar, and Mullah Yaqub. As an extremist Sunni group whose ideology is rooted in hatred of Shiites, the Haqqani group has opposed every pro-Iranian figure in the Taliban’s governmental structure, ostensibly at the expense of Taliban-Iran relations.

The Taliban’s inability to contain Islamic State, which had previously provided grounds for working together, has further strained relations. A significant driver of Iranian support for the Taliban and against anti-Taliban groups like the National Resistance Front, through the prevention of attempts to create rival power structures, amongst other methods, was the assurance that the Taliban would be able to remove the threat of Daesh from the sector of the region. However, with Islamic State’s presence increasing near the Iran-Afghanistan border in Zaranj, and concerns that the Taliban may be using the presence of IS to its own advantage, Tehran is becoming increasingly prepared to interact with alternative partners to advance its goals in Afghanistan.

The growing problem surrounding refugees has also inflamed tensions between the Taliban and Iran. At the time of the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, it was estimated that there were more than 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran. Although there are no accurate statistics on the number of Afghan refugees fleeing across the border, Iran’s Ministry of Interior estimates the number to be between 5 and 10 million. The figure has grown dramatically since the Taliban took control of Kabul. With an ever-growing number of refugees fleeing across the border from Afghanistan to Iran, only to then be deported back, the crisis is set to become an acute issue of contention.

Border clashes have also proven problematic since the Taliban took back control, especially recently, with three major clashes between the two sides that have allegedly killed several Iranian soldiers so far. A lack of understanding of the border regulations by Taliban border guards has been blamed for the clashes, although the most recent arrests of Iranian border guards for accidentally entering Afghanistan suggest the misunderstanding may be mutual. While not the most pressing issue of those discussed, recurring border clashes provide another reason for relations to remain stale.

In Iran, the theory that the Taliban has changed its nature and is no longer a globalist and anti-Shia ideological group is losing traction. The true face of Iran-Taliban relations is thought to be gradually showing itself. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the lack of a common threat has led to incompatible preferences, casting a shadow over bilateral relations. The Taliban believes that Iran’s relative power has increased since the US left the region and fears Tehran intends to impose its demands on what it considers to be the weaker party. The response from the Taliban has been to remain resolute in its resistance. Under these conditions, the Taliban may seek alliances with anti-Iranian groups.


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