Iran’s carrot-and-stick strategy toward the Taliban

Agha Hussain, The Cradle, May 22, 2023 —

Iran’s stance on the Taliban involves strategically aligning its West Asian and Eurasian policies, employing key leverage, and positioning itself as a key regional player in shaping Afghanistan’s future, without undermining its own water and security concerns.

For its neighbors, Afghanistan presents a mix of immediate headaches and long-term opportunities. The inability of the Taliban government to suppress drug trafficking and terrorism becomes a pressing issue for surrounding countries, hindering their efforts to address border security and provide aid.

This situation blocks their pursuit of higher, more geopolitically rewarding outcomes in Afghanistan. Among these neighbors, Iran stands out as the country with the most coherent plan to break this gridlock and integrate Afghanistan into its regional bigger-picture.

The Republic and the Emirate

Iran cautiously welcomed the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021 following the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan, perceiving the departure of its American adversary as an opportunity to bring peace and stability to the country.

Iran and the Taliban’s ‘narrative overlap’ regarding the highly-celebrated US exit from Afghanistan was one way Tehran sought to create camaraderie with the new Taliban regime. Iranian officials have openly spoken of pursuing strong ties with the post-US regime in Kabul.

Iran’s open interest in forming an alliance with the Taliban was evident from the shared narrative between the two regarding the wholly positive outcome of the US exit from Afghanistan. This alignment of interests can be attributed to several factors.

Both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are premised on Islamic-inspired governance, though their versions of Sharia law could not be more different in practice.

Additionally, Afghanistan holds immense importance for Iran due to its significant role in contemporary Eurasian integration processes, in which Tehran plays a major role. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan represents a unique opportunity for Iran to align its West Asia strategy with its Eurasian “Look East” policy.

Despite the Taliban administration’s unstable disposition, Iran has shown patience; downplaying clashes at the Iran-Afghan border as misunderstandings and confusion on Kabul’s part regarding border lines and, crucially, over the outstanding issue of water rights.

The stakes are high for Iran, as these governance and leadership mishaps have hindered neighboring countries’ projects in Afghanistan, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline and the Pakistan-Uzbekistan railway. While Afghanistan’s neighbors have provided humanitarian aid and financial assistance, they have found limited success in influencing the Taliban’s direction.

In contrast, Iran has developed strategic options to pressure the Taliban and form partnerships with other Afghan factions to advance its interests in Afghanistan. This distinguishes Iran from other neighboring countries and positions it as a key player in shaping the future of Afghanistan.

Reaching out to the Tajiks

Following their 2021 political victory, the Taliban’s reputation as a Pashtun-centric party led to renewed clashes with Tajiks in northern Afghanistan. Iran, notably, reacted to these clashes by condemning the Taliban’s crackdown on the largely Persian-speaking Tajik community.

Tehran’s reaction indicated a potential shift from its tolerance of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s rulers, since the National Resistance Front (NRF) leading the Tajik dissent refused to recognize the Taliban’s authority. Thus, Tehran showed that it would readily develop ties with the Taliban’s rivals if it felt that its acceptance of the Taliban regime was not yielding the desired results.

Furthermore, Iran’s strategic alliance with Tajikistan, which shares a border with Tajik-majority regions in northern Afghanistan, adds weight to its warning to Kabul. Tajikistan, openly hostile toward the Taliban, has provided shelter to NRF leaders based on ethnic solidarity with anti-Taliban Tajiks in Afghanistan

Iran’s establishment of a drone factory in Dushanbe in May 2022 also sends a strong message to the Taliban, considering Tajikistan’s efforts to create an anti-Taliban buffer zone in northern Afghanistan through increased troop deployments with support from its Russian and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) partners on its Afghan border.

This approach combines pressure and incentives to encourage the Taliban to accommodate Iran. As the Taliban lacks actual foreign allies, they are ill-prepared to handle potential escalations of tension in northern Afghanistan, where Tajikistan has already secured support for its pro-NRF involvement. Iran’s support for Tajikistan’s campaign would further isolate the Taliban and encircle them strategically.

In contrast, Iran is the only state signaling interest in an actual alliance with the Taliban, despite their isolation from most of the international community due to their poor human rights record and lack of ethnic inclusivity, among other issues.

Iran is also among the few countries that have officially handed over their Afghan embassies to the Taliban. Therefore, the Taliban have the opportunity to gain Iran’s trust by cooperating and preventing Tehran from aiding their rivals.

Carrot-and-stick approach

Iran’s approach to the Taliban regime includes both carrots and sticks, with recent diplomatic mediation between the Taliban and NRF as another element. In January 2022, Iran hosted a meeting between officials from the NRF and the Taliban, signaling its willingness to assist in reaching a diplomatic understanding between the two parties rather than taking sides in their conflict.

By offering neutral mediation, Iran provides the Taliban with a platform for engagement with the NRF that is not heavily biased in favor of the latter. The vigilance of Tajikistan, Russia, and the CSTO along the Tajikistan-Afghan border serves as a protective shield for the NRF’s agenda, making it risky for the Taliban to launch a full-scale military campaign to dismantle the NRF’s presence in northern Afghanistan.

Additionally, the NRF’s international lobbying efforts through the Afghan diaspora in the west make it likely that other potential mediators, such as the EU or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), would push the Taliban for greater concessions compared to the NRF.

Hence, there is a strong argument for the Taliban to accept Iran’s diplomatic overtures as an olive branch, providing them with a less costly option for engaging with the NRF. Furthermore, Iran’s role as a mediator reduces the likelihood of it siding with the NRF, which the Taliban cannot afford. Support from Iran, a state experienced in asymmetrical and proxy warfare, would significantly empower the NRF more than Tajikistan’s sponsorship alone.

Water Insecurity

Iran’s access to the Helmand River has been a matter of security and tension with Afghanistan for decades, preceding both the rise of the Taliban and, indeed, the Islamic Revolution. Iran securing its water share is all the more pressing, with 97 percent of the country now experiencing some form of drought, according to 2021 estimates.

Having so far failed to live up to their end of the 1973 Helmand River treaty, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has issued the latest warning to the Taliban on 18 May: “I’d remind the rulers of Afghanistan that they should not regard our demand as being ordinary and must take it very seriously,” he said.

The following day, the foreign ministry stated that “The Islamic Republic of Iran reserves the rights to take necessary measures and emphasizes the full responsibility of Afghanistan in this regard.”

At the time of writing, the Taliban government has reaffirmed its commitment to cooperate with Tehran and strengthen relations. This pledge comes after an Iranian military delegation visited Kabul on 20 May to engage in discussions regarding shared concerns, highlighting the significance and seriousness of the ongoing talks.

A statement by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense stated: “The Islamic Emirate has always wanted good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and it is committed to further cooperation in various fields.”

Iran’s regional and civilizational role

As mentioned earlier, Iran’s primary objective is to integrate Afghanistan into its network of West Asian allies, known as the “Axis of Resistance,” and to play a crucial role in Eurasian connectivity initiatives that hold great importance for Tehran.

Prior to the Taliban government, Afghanistan, Iran, and India entered into a trilateral agreement in 2016, utilizing Iran’s Chabahar Port as a transit hub for Afghan trade with India. The Chabahar corridor serves as an extension of the larger International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which connects India’s sea ports to those of Iran and extends through Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia to Finland in northern Europe.

Once the rail links between Chabahar port and the Iranian and Afghan railway networks are completed, the Chabahar corridor will enable Iran to significantly enhance its trade with Central Asia through Afghanistan.

President Raisi’s series of meetings with the leaders of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan between April and June 2022 further exemplify Iran’s positioning as a major power in Central Asia. Each meeting resulted in joint statements emphasizing shared security concerns in Afghanistan, indicating Iran’s intention to lead efforts in bringing stability to the country and establishing it as the central link between Iran and Central Asia.

To achieve this, Iran highlights both its strategic alliance with Tajikistan and its diplomacy in Afghanistan based on a shared civilizational heritage with the two Persian-speaking countries.

As the largest and most influential of the Persianate countries, Iran has the capability to build strong relationships with the Taliban’s Persian-speaking rivals. By doing so, Iran can assure them of their fair share of power within Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, especially as these rival groups often accuse the Taliban of suppressing Afghanistan’s Persianate identity.

Therefore, it has become important for the Taliban to deal positively and proactively with Iran’s broader plans for Afghanistan and the region. They cannot afford to allow Iran to leverage its ties with Tajikistan and anti-Taliban Afghan factions to unite Persianate opposition against their rule.

Overall, the Taliban have the potential to gain diplomatic and economic advantages by participating in Iran’s Afghan and regional initiatives while also ensuring the Islamic Republic’s water rights are no longer violated. Navigating Iran’s carrot-and-stick approach presents a significant foreign policy challenge for the Taliban government, considering the substantial stakes involved.

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