Iran’s support to Taliban: A bad gamble

Iran’s support to Taliban: A bad gamble

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Iran’s support to Taliban: A bad gamble

By SHAHRAM AKBARZADEH

The Taliban are not a trustworthy friend for Iran due to their strategic ties with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Scholars believe relations between Iran and the Taliban are not a strategic partnership and will not remain flexible, taking into consideration the deep ideological differences and Iran’s close links with the Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups in Afghanistan

Russia, China and Iran have made it clear that they intend to recognise the Taliban. However, one would be curious to know why Iran has embraced a former foe.

Ideologically, the Taliban is a Deobandi Sunni group with the political agenda of imposing the sharia according to the Hanafi School of Jurisprudence.

During its previous rule, the Taliban nurtured anti-Shia sentiments, committing the worst atrocities against the Hazara community.

During the 90s, Iran had armed the Northern Alliance to fight against the Taliban. The Taliban established the Islamic Emirate in 1996 and was recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran supported the Northern Alliance front against the Taliban under the leadership of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

However, Iran has been very practical in its relations with the Taliban. Iran established ties with the Taliban because it saw them as a useful tool to undermine the role of the United States in Afghanistan.

But this presents difficult questions for Iran. The Taliban have been sectarian in their outlook and deliberately anti-Shia. In 1998, the Taliban attacked the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed eight Iranian diplomats and correspondents from the state news agency, IRNA.

In the present scenario, Iran hopes that its new ties with the Taliban will prevent the revival of an anti-Iran policy. The Iranian Supreme Leader insists that the Taliban have changed. But these hopes may be misplaced.

While the Taliban have made all the right noises about having an inclusive government, there is little evidence that they will remain that ‘flexible’ once all foreign troops are out and international attention shifts away from Afghanistan.

Taliban policy is grounded in intolerance and a very conservative interpretation of Islam. The Taliban do not have popular support in Afghanistan.

They managed to walk into Kabul because the Afghan armed forces and political establishment had lost the will to fight.

And that was the outcome of a growing belief in Afghanistan that Kabul could not withstand the Taliban advance. So self-preservation meant that local leaders simply let the Taliban walk into their cities and settlements.

Even if those leaders who were present in Doha, Qatar talk about tolerance and inclusiveness, the support base remains extremely conservative. This will bear heavily on the future direction of the Taliban and the policies they will adopt.

The Taliban will never allow any cultural influence of Iran in Afghanistan.

When the Taliban were ruling Kabul, they categorically rejected any cultural link between Kabul and Tehran. Once the Taliban stabilises itself in Afghanistan, the relation between Iran and Afghanistan would be limited to fulfilling their own interests. As of now, there are looming threats of the drug trade and rising number of refugees, which Iran must address immediately.

The high volume of opium smuggled across the 950-km border between Iran and Afghanistan on the way to Europe has contributed to some of the highest addiction rates in the region.

Given that the widespread destruction in Afghanistan is fueling an economic crisis, as the outcome, the Taliban might be compelled to become dependent on the narcotics trade for survival. This, in turn, will be a threat to Iran as the Taliban can convert Iran into a transit point while distributing drugs in Iran as well. As per a recent finding by a US-based newspaper, on the barren high plains of western Afghanistan, there is a hamlet, with a few huts known as Qala-e-Biwaha, or “village of widows”. Most of the men in the village have disappeared – killed while trying to smuggle opium across the desolate frontier into neighbouring Iran.

Most of them have two choices, either to smuggle drugs or join the Taliban.

And Afghan refugees number around 3million in Iran. Taliban rule has already presented Iran with an influx of refugees, putting significant strain on Iran’s ability to provide basic necessities. The poppy trade and refugee influx are the two immediate challenges facing Tehran.

Another very clear risk for Iran is that the Taliban will establish close ties with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh was among the handful of states that recognised the Taliban when it was in power in 1996.

It is not difficult to see why Riyadh would establish ties with the Taliban again. There is an obvious sectarian affinity between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban.

This is a new opportunity for Saudi Arabia to gain some leverage against Iran.

The regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia could escalate into a new arena, and Iran would be on the back foot here.

The Taliban are not a trustworthy friend for Iran due to their strategic partnership with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Scholars believe that relations between Iran and the Taliban are not a strategic partnership and will not remain flexible, taking into consideration the deep historical and ideological differences and Iran’s close links with the Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

Although the leadership of the Taliban has learned to make noises that are not as pungent to the international community as in its earlier avatar, the common Talib (member of the Taliban) remains the same Madrassa-educated conservative youth.

It is also important to watch how other militant organisations affiliated with the Taliban and still involved in killing Shias would view relationships between Iran and the Taliban.

The Taliban also view Iran as a primary supporter of the Northern Alliance, a mix of ethnic and religious minorities who fought the predominantly Pashtun, Sunni Taliban in the 1990s.

Akbarzadeh is Research Professor of Middle East and Central Asian Politics and Convenor of Middle East Studies Forum at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia