No one in the Iranian government was sad to see U.S. and NATO troops leave Afgh-anistan. In fact, Tehran would prefer to have the Taliban next-door than often-hostile Western powers. But Shiite-majority Iran has also been a target of attacks in the past from the Sunni Islamist Taliban, and it worries that if Afghani-stan descends into chaos, it could negatively affect Iran’s ability to exert influence and trade with its neighbor—or worse, that the volatility could spill over into Iran. Tehr-an will have to pull off a delicate balancing act if it’s to benefit from the U.-S. and NATO withdrawal.
Iran has had a rocky relationship with the Taliban. The group killed Iranian diplomatic personnel and an Iranian journalist at Iran’s consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, during the years when it last controlled most of Afghanistan. These murders earned the Taliban a reputation for viciousness among the Iranian public, and the government came close to ordering a military response. Tehran actively supported the U.S. in ousting the Taliban and setting up a new government in Kabul in 2001. But Iran has also pragmatically worked with the Taliban when it had to, particularly from the 2010s onward, even forging links with parts of the group as a way to hedge its bets and maintain some influence with a powerful force in Afghanistan that was rapidly regaining strength.
Today, despite Iran’s relief at the U.S. withdrawal and its own improved ties with the Taliban, there are several aspects of the group’s takeover that put Tehran on edge.
In July, as the Taliban was escalating its nationwide offensive, its fighters captured key border crossings with Iran. The two countries share approximately 572 miles of rugged border, which is difficult to police. Ensuring it maintains control of the border crossings, and that the border regions with Afghanistan remain stable and quiet, is a key priority for the Islamic Republic.
The flow of Afghan refugees into Iran is also a major concern. Tehran announced it would settle any newcomers at the border for now—in Razavi Khorasan, South Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchestan, the provinces adjacent to Afghanistan—stating that it expects them to return home “when conditions improve.” Iran already hosts nearly 3.5 million Afghans, of which 780,000 are registered refugees. The arrival of still more people risks fueling local resentment. Tehran has accused outsiders of stirring up discontent in the Baluchestan region, for example, which is populated mostly by Sunni Baluch who, as both a religious and an ethnic minority, have had a troubled relationship with the country’s rulers. More refugees could also strain Iran’s health care system—already stretched thin by the COVID-19 pandemic—and its economy, fragile after decades of mismanagement and sanctions.
The Taliban takeover could also have a significant direct impact on Iran because of how tightly the two countries’ economies are intertwined. Tehran has in recent years increased trade ties with neighboring countries like Afghanistan, in an effort to adapt to the wave of U.S. sanctions it was subjected to.
Tehran has had a rocky relationship with the Taliban, and will have to pull off a delicate balancing act if it’s to benefit from the U.S. and NATO withdrawal.
Iran, as a self-proclaimed defender of minorities in the Sunni-dominated Islamic world, has expressed concern for Afghanistan’s ethno-religious minorities, especially its fellow Shiites, the Hazara. Tehran’s engagement with the Taliban, who are notorious for persecuting the Hazara, has included pressure on the group not to do so. Thus far, the Taliban have tried to project a softer approach toward minorities. The group announced last month that it would allow the observance of Ashura—a major religious ceremony when Shiites commemorate the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet Mohammad’s gra-ndson—to proceed unhindered. That said, recent re-ports have also documented sporadic attacks against Hazaras by the Taliban.
Despite these concerns, Iran may be able to live with the stresses caused by the Taliban’s return to power.
Iran has deep networks across the political spectrum in Afghanistan, allowing it to maintain a “business as usual” atmosphere even after the Taliban rolled into Kabul on Aug. 15. Its diplomatic missions have remained open in both the capital and the largest city in western Afghanistan, Herat. From Iran’s perspective, keeping its Kabul embassy open was a message to the world: Despite its past difficulties with the Taliban, Iran will figure out how to navigate the new landscape, and importantly, it does not abandon those it worked with, like others have.
As for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—the parallel military formed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to defend the revolution—it has built unofficial ties with the Taliban. In 2016, the IRGC reportedly facilitated a visit to Tehran by Mullah Mansoor, who at the time was the Taliban’s leader. He was then killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, as he travelled back from Iran. Other reports suggest the Revolutionary Guards have provided the Taliban with weapons and training. As a result, the IRGC believes it can pursue its interests with a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. It might come to view the group as a threat in the future, but for now, it is content with the change in regimes next-door.
Finally, Iran also views the Taliban’s return to po-wer as a small step toward realizing its vision of a region without U.S. troops, dominated by an “alternative axis” comprising countries like Iran, China and Russia, who don’t agree with the U.S.-led world order. Anti-Americanism is an ideological tenet of the Islamic Republic, and while the departure of U.S. troops creates uncertainty and instability, it is still a public relations win for Iran. It also presents Tehran, along with other powers like Moscow and Beijing, with an opportunity to increase their influence in Afghanistan, and by extension, the region. But that will likely require them to recognize the new Taliban government, and it’s unclear under what conditions Tehran would be willing to do that.
Since the Taliban’s takeover, Tehran has been positioning itself to secure its interests in Afghanistan and forge a working relationship with its new rulers. This will require a delicate diplomatic game. Recent history suggests that Iran may be well-placed to play it.
Dr. Dina Esfandiary is a senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. Follow her on Twitter @DEsfandiary.