Reflections on Events in Afghanistan-20

Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) welcoming Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C), Tehran, Jan. 31, 2021

20. Iran takes good look at Taliban rulers 

Some strongly worded statements from Iran deploring the clashes in Panjshir Valley created a perception that Tehran might be distancing itself from the Taliban government. Of course, Tehran is vociferously urging the formation of an ‘inclusive government’ in Kabul. 

On the other hand, Iran’s embassy in Kabul is functioning, commercial flights have resumed and the border crossings remain open. 

True, during the Hassan Rouhani presidency, Tehran walked a fine line keeping line of communication open to the Taliban latter while also fostering government-to-government ties with Kabul. Tehran twice hosted face-to-face talks between the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

To be sure, following the election of Ebrahim Raisi as president, a review of foreign policies has been under way. Some signs of rethink may be appearing. 

On September 17, Iran joined Russia, China and Pakistan at the foreign minister level in Dushanbe on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation summit to discuss ‘coordination and cooperation’ in relation to the next steps to be taken vis-a-vis the Taliban government.

Arguably, this has been the first time that Iran joined such a format. The Dushanbe meeting has also issued a joint statement. 

This is only a few days after the first-ever meeting of the countries neighbouring Afghanistan — Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan — which was also at foreign minister level, chaired by Pakistan. Notably, Iran has offered to host the next meeting soon. 

The leitmotif of these two conclaves in recent weeks has been the need to constructively engage with the Taliban government. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has highlighted the remarks by State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Dushanbe meeting, calling for all-round engagement with Afghanistan. read more

Of course, President Xi Jinping in his remarks at the SCO-CSTO Outreach in Dushanbe on September 17 had put forward a three-point proposal to engage with Afghanistan. Ji Jinping said, 

“First, promote the smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan as soon as possible… Second, contact and talk with Afghanistan. Interact with all parties in Afghanistan from a rational and pragmatic perspective, and facilitate a new political structure that is more open and inclusive, and adopts moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies and develops friendly relations with other countries, especially its neighbours.” read more 

Clearly, Beijing has become a persuasive exponent of the need to engage with The Taliban government. Importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin also took a similar line in his speech at the SCO summit. It is in this backdrop that Iran has joined the regional format with Russia, China and Pakistan in Dushanbe for taking a coordinated approach by the major regional states.

Meanwhile, there are other signs of new thinking in Tehran. President Raisi, as he wound up the visit to Tajikistan for the SCO Summit, told the Iranian state TV, “We will not allow terrorist organisations and Islamic State to set up next to our border and strike other countries and the region. The presence of IS in Afghanistan is dangerous not only for Afghanistan but also for the region.” 

Raisi cannot be unaware that the Taliban is the inveterate enemy of the Islamic State. In fact, Tehran has for long alleged that the US transferred the IS fighters from Syria to Afghanistan in a project to use them as geopolitical tool against China, Russia and Iran. 

What needs to be noted is that these nascent signals of a change of course have appeared after a closed door session of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) on September 7 during which Gen. Esmail Ghaani (Qaani), commander of the IRGC elite wing Quds Force outlined the situation in Afghanistan. 

Now, Quds Force is in charge of Afghanistan and Gen. Ghaani is a veteran who was Iran’s point person for Afghan operations and had reportedly established good equations with the Haqqani Network. (He succeeded Gen. Qassem Soleimani who was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad last year.) 

According to some lawmakers who attended the briefing, Gen. Ghaani presented intelligence inputs to reiterate Iran’s support for an “inclusive” government” in Afghanistan, but also stressing Iran’s special commitment to Afghan Shiites (principally Hazaras). He accused the US of trying to “pitch Shiite Iran against the Sunni world.” 

The general told the lawmakers that it was important that Iran dealt with the situation in Afghanistan to avoid such Sunni-Shia conflict. Of course, the rapid collapse of the Ghani government, after two decades of US backing, has created new facts on the ground.

Equally, on Saturday, just 10 days after the Quds Force commander spoke at the Majlis, Kayhan, a state-funded newspaper whose publishers are directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, featured an extraordinary commentary advocating an Iran-Taliban alliance against the US. 

The author Sadollah Zarei, a well-known columnist, wrote: “Worthy of note is that in the past two decades, the Taliban have been following the call of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Muslims to strive to form governments that are independent of oppressing foreign powers, and fight against corruption at home.” 

Invoking Imam Khomenei’s legacy to “legitimise” the Taliban makes this a hugely important commentary. Now, Zarei concluded by claiming that what worries the US most today is “Iran’s ever-growing power and the formation of an active [joint Iran-Afghan] resistance”. 

Kayhan has been pushing the line for sometime that the Taliban has transformed through the past 20-year period and no longer commits sectarian crimes against the Hazara community. In fact, Kayhan has taken to describing the Taliban leaders as Sufis — not “takfiris”, a pejorative commonly used to distinguish the Islamic State and Wahhabis who deem Shiism apostasy. 

Interestingly, Zarei highlighted in the Kayhan commentary that the Taliban has respected Iran’s national interests, including border security, prevents Afghan soil from being used by terrorist groups to threaten Iran and has shown interest in maintaining trade and co-managing water resources. 

According to him, the Taliban government understands the imperatives of a “closer and more friendly regional and international environment” as prerequisite for gaining world recognition and the Taliban rulers seek a “regional-international alliance” to help them attain international legitimacy –an alliance comprising Iran, China, India, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan but excluding Saudi Arabia and Western powers.