Can Iran be friends with the Taliban?
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This sentence was used in recent days on the semi-oppositional Iranian news site gooya.com to explain why the Iranians are talking to the Taliban – for this reason, the regime had, the site claimed, also supplied the Taliban with weapons. But things are not quite that simple.
As in the West and among Afghans in exile, Iranians are divided on whether to believe the Taliban's assurances and promises. The newspaper Keyhan, mouthpiece of religious leader Ali Khamenei, wrote that the Taliban had changed, that they were no longer the Taliban of twenty years ago. However, the newspaper was criticised for this by high-ranking Ayatollahs who, like many Afghan opposition members and Afghanistan experts living in Iran, are convinced of the opposite.
Despite this scepticism, however, Iran has been meeting with Taliban representatives for some time. Back in 2019, they were received by the then foreign minister, Jawad Sarif. That they have even been supplied with weapons, as claimed by the Iranian opposition, seems illogical, however. The Taliban do not need Iranian support because they have been equipped by the Pakistanis, as the Pakistani arms supplier Ziaullah Khan bluntly admitted.
Tehran wants a unity government
One reason for the meetings is indeed the Americans: when it came to overthrowing the Taliban in 2001, Tehran supported the USA and established contacts with the Northern Alliance. Iran was traditionally allied with the Northern Alliance around the Tajik Ahmed Shah Massoud, because the Tajiks speak Persian and the Hazara are Shias. Tehran even persuaded the Northern Alliance to agree to the Pashtun Hamid Karzai being appointed interim president. Iran also held direct talks with the Americans and readily declared its willingness to support them in a number of ways. That's how happy they were at the time about the fall of the Taliban.
But instead of rewarding Tehran's mediating stance and advances, the then U.S. President George W. Bush included Iran in the so-called axis of evil. Moreover, parts of the U.S. administration blatantly called for regime change in Tehran. Thus, the USA abandoned the moderate President Mohammed Khatami and his attempt to open up the country to the West. His opponents in Iran could now justifiably claim that, once again, the Americans were not to be trusted.
Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes. What is more, these days Tehran regards the Taliban as brothers in spirit, similarly prepared to take a stand against America. Above all, however, Iran is bent on convincing the Taliban to form a government of national unity – with the inclusion of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including the Hazara, the Uzbeks and the Tajiks. Indeed, Iran has offered to mediate between the Taliban and the country's ethnic and religious minorities.
In this way, Tehran hopes to prevent millions of people from fleeing from Afghanistan to Iran again. More than three million Afghans already live within its borders. And with the construction of the wall between Turkey and Iran, hope is dwindling that the refugees would then continue on to Europe. Iran's plan is to set up buffer zones along the border. Large numbers of Revolutionary Guards have already been ordered to the 960-kilometre stretch shared with Afghanistan.
For there is something else to be feared: if the Taliban come under pressure, sanctions are imposed on them and they can no longer get their hands on money, experience has shown that they will expand their opium cultivation. And this then becomes a problem for Iran as well: the country is on the distribution line of Afghan heroin to Europe, with the result that Iran is one of the countries with the most drug addicts worldwide.
Iran's interests will definitely not be served by an unstable neighbour on its doorstep, from which hundreds of thousands of people are hoping to flee. That is why Tehran is trying to persuade the Taliban to form a government of national unity. They are encouraging the Taliban to see themselves as the government of those traditionally under Iranian protection, above all the Shia Hazara, and to behave accordingly. That is not so easy. As with Islamic State (IS), the Taliban are also fundamentally anti-Shia. Whether this stance could ultimately be directed against Iran itself, as in the case of the IS, is an open question. In 1998, war almost broke out between Tehran and the Taliban's Afghanistan when the latter kidnapped and killed eleven Iranian journalists and diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Moreover, threatening slogans are already being heard from the ranks of the Afghan fighters of Islamic State. IS, actually ISIS or Daesh in Arabic, originally set its sights on the countries of Iraq and Syria for its state structure. But the Afghans among the IS fighters, all Pashtuns, want the Khorasan region included as well. This would not only encompass the Afghan areas around Herat, Kabul and Balch, but also Iranian areas in the north-east of the country around Mashhad and Nishapur. For Iran, therefore, there is a danger from the Afghans in IS and they need the Taliban to curb and contain them.
And it is possible that the Taliban might agree to this: because the Taliban have never accepted IS. Unlike IS, they are not pursuing an international agenda, and their ambitions are limited to Afghan territory. The Taliban, however, fear that IS could become a danger to themselves if it recruits support in Afghanistan. Sharing a very similar ideology, IS is the Taliban's greatest rival: after all, both are strictly Sunni, anti-democratic, misogynistic and anti-American.
Examining Iranian politics down the centuries, one principle in particular stands out: embrace those enemies you cannot defeat. This is how they dealt with the Arabs, the Turks and the Mongols, who became Iranianised in the process. In the end, these three peoples spread Iranian interests and Iranian culture much further and to greater effect than the Persians themselves. Currently, the Taliban would seem to be getting the same treatment.
© ZEIT ONLINE 2021
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