Iran is watching closely as U.S. and Taliban negotiate an end to America’s operations in Afghanistan. If the expected withdrawal of significant U.S. forces destabilizes Afghanistan, how much influence will Tehran assert its influence over its neighbor to the east?
Iran has worked to increase its soft power resonance in Afghanistan, through foreign direct investment and the development of infrastructure linked to communications and transportation. It’s also spent years building ties to key stakeholders in that country, including groups with ethnic, cultural, and religious ties to Iran, as well as the Taliban. But Tehran has failed to achieve the same level of political influence that it wields in the countries to its West, such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. In other words, Iranian influence on political and military affairs in Afghanistan has never reached its full potential—something Tehran is eager to correct.
Iran’s experience working with Afghan proxies goes back decades to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, where Afghan fighters fought on Iran’s behalf against Saddam Hussein’s forces. In the present era, Iran has cultivated a range of militias and Shia foreign fighters, including the Liwa Fatemiyoun, who could be redeployed to Afghanistan to help provide security and guard Iranian interests. The IRGC-QF could select the most elite members of the Liwa Fatemiyoun and use them for specialized terrorist operations in Afghanistan or elsewhere. In Syria, these fighters operated under direct Iranian command and did not take orders from Syrian regime troops. This suggests a familiarity with the Iranian way of war and has implications for a robust command-and-control relationship. In fact, the Fatemiyoun come much closer to being a proper Iranian proxy under Iranian command than most of the regime’s other non-state partners and allies, including even the poster child of Tehran’s non-state strategy, Lebanese Hezbollah.
Although in the past decade Iran’s historically tense relationship with the Taliban has improved, and Tehran has even lent modest support to the insurgents, it’s not clear whether this cooperation will continue as U.S. forces draw down. The Taliban stand to gain considerable political power in Afghanistan as a result of the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” Recent Iranian actions in Afghanistan suggest that the country is eager to ensure that the Taliban’s rise doesn’t result in a resumption of tensions and conflict as was the case in the 1990s. As recently as late 2018, Iranian leadership and high-ranking Taliban members met to discuss potential areas of cooperation to stabilize Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal. At various points throughout the nearly two-decade long conflict between the United States and the Taliban, Iran has provided weapons, training, and funding to the Afghan insurgents. Iran has also sent some of its commandos to fight alongside Taliban units in battles against U.S. and Afghan forces. But there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding how Iran would seek to coexist with the militants.
As the United States begins to end its involvement in Afghanistan, the primary objective is for Tehran to hedge its bets in the event that the Taliban eventually take control over large swaths of Afghanistan, as they did for years prior to 9/11. In fact, this consideration has played no small part in driving Iran’s more overt overture to the Taliban in recent years.
Another factor explaining the unlikely Taliban-Iran relationship lies in a shared enemy in the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP, the ISIS’s affiliate in Afghanistan. It behooves Tehran to have a stable neighbor in Afghanistan to prevent ISKP from planning and executing attacks on Iranian soil from there. This makes Iranian assistance to the Afghan government increasingly likely as Tehran seeks to stabilize the country in the wake of a U.S. drawdown. And as Iran’s economy continues to suffer under U.S. sanctions, it finds a key partner in Afghanistan—a market whose cultural, ethnic, and linguistic similarities to Iran make it significant for Iranian businesses starving for opportunity.
In the pursuit of these objectives, Iran will face competition from other countries in the aftermath of the recent deal with the Taliban. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has long maintained links to members of the Taliban, while countries like China, Saudi Arabia, India, and Russia will also seek to lay the foundation for a relationship with whatever government a power-sharing agreement produces.
Iran is well-positioned to strike a delicate balancing act in Afghanistan. It has long maintained positive working relationships with various members of the non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan, including influential individuals and groups from Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara communities that wield political power in the current Afghan government. Iran has even signed a defense cooperation agreement with the government in Kabul.
There are still further hurdles to the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement, however, and it is not unrealistic to foresee a situation where the United States follows through on a troop withdrawal, while the Taliban and the Afghan government are unable to make meaningful progress during the intra-Afghan negotiation period. If that scenario comes to pass, Afghanistan could be facing the prospect of yet another civil war, plunging it into further chaos.
This potential future would also require a more hands-on role for Iran, with Tehran working to mitigate spillover violence while at the same time seeking to influence key political and economic powerbrokers amidst warring factions.
Regardless of which scenario unfolds, Iran is likely to remain a significant player in Afghanistan. Unlike in Syria, for example, where Tehran’s involvement has largely produced a net negative for the country and exacerbated the conflict, in Afghanistan Iranian presence is more mixed. Iran’s relations with some non-state actors may pose a challenge to the United States as it seeks to end its intervention in Afghanistan (especially if the tensions between the two countries pick up once again). But ultimately, Iran has an interest in preserving some degree of stability in the country.