Since they took power in 2021, the Taliban government’s policies have caused thousands of Afghans to flee to Iran. The new government has supported drug cultivation and trade, which are forbidden in Iran, and the strict Sunni rule of Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is in direct opposition with Iran’s Shiite ideology. Trigger-happy Taliban guards, ignorant of international border standards, have imperiled the border between the two countries. Despite these many differences, however, the Republic of Iran has chosen a practical approach towards the Taliban, believing that logical problem solving with their neighbor is better than conflict.
According to a 2019 United States Defense Intelligence Agency report, Tehran “aims to maintain influence with the group as a hedge in the event that the Taliban gains a role in a future Afghan government.” To accomplish this, Iran has given financial, political, training, and material support to the Taliban, even though they do not necessarily value the Afghani group’s opinions and oppose many of their practices, such as supporting drug cultivation and trade. This practical approach may extend to officially recognizing the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, something no country has done so far.
This pragmatic policy towards the Taliban has its limits, however. Kabul, which follows strict Sunni Sharia law, has not included even one Shiite in their cabinet, and they oppress the minority Hazara Shiites. Terrorist attacks in April 2022 against the Shiites of Afghanistan provoked a strong response from the President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi: “Protecting the lives of all the people of Afghanistan, including the Shiites, is the duty of the current rulers of this country.”
Position of the Taliban in Iran’s politics
The relationship reached its nadir when the Taliban killed eight diplomats and a journalist at the Iranian consulate in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif on August 8, 1998. Following this incident, 200,000 Iranian military forces were stationed at the border, with the Supreme Leader of Iran calling the Taliban “worthless and lowly people.”
The U.S.’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 changed this dynamic, and Iran’s policy towards the Taliban changed; yesterday’s enemy became a potential friend today. In addition to Iran’s official relationship with Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, Tehran secretly communicated with key actors in the Taliban and provided them with funding, weapons and training support.
By 2015 the relationship had intensified. In May 2015, Muhammad Tayyab Agha — head of the Taliban’s Qatar-based political office — traveled to Tehran and admitted that Taliban officials had visited Iran several times. In June 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that Tehran had stepped up its funding and arms supply to the Taliban and was even recruiting and training fighters. Tehran was even able to establish communication bridges with the leader of the Taliban. In fact, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the second leader of the Taliban, was killed in a U.S. drone attack upon his return to Pakistan from a trip to Iran, where he consulted with the authorities of the Islamic Republic.
President Ashraf Ghani announced a road map for potential peace talks with the Taliban in November 2018, and on December 26, 2018, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, announced that he had met with the Taliban. It was the first time that the Islamic Republic made its relations with the Taliban public, and was considered a turning point in diplomacy between the two countries. Four days later, a Taliban delegation came to Iran, and these meetings were repeated in September and November 2019 and January and July 2021.
There were several reasons for Iran’s secrecy in dealing with the Taliban. U.S. military forces entered Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, effectively surrounding Iran from the east and west. Iran believed providing weapons and military training to the Taliban would ensure the U.S. would get stuck fighting in Afghanistan. Iran also wanted to gain influence over the Taliban in case they came to power again. Other stakeholders in the region such as China, Pakistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia had all started secret communication channels with the Taliban, and Tehran did not want to lag behind them. The Taliban’s relationship with these countries is unclear, but the Taliban did not hesitate to engage in international interactions with any country that was interested.
Despite Tehran’s outreach efforts, they experienced problems with the Taliban when they came to power in August 2021. Some of these problems can be attributed to the group’s political inexperience; the Taliban did not know how to govern and were unable to fully establish intergroup differences. The Taliban is made up predominately of Pashtuns, and is divided along ethnic, regional, and tribal lines. There is believed to be growing competition between the Haqqani network – a Taliban faction based in the east – and a faction of Taliban co-founders in the south of the country. There is also a smaller and less powerful faction of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Taliban commanders who are based in northern Afghanistan.
The 921-kilometer border between Iran and Afghanistan is currently seeing a wave of Afghan refugees, widespread drug trafficking, and terrorist activity, and securing this area is one of Tehran’s top priorities. On April 23, 2022, the Dogharoon-Islam Qala border crossing between northern Afghanistan and Iran was closed, leading to a clash with Afghani guards who were trying to plant their flag. Iranian media reported that the guards were unfamiliar with the common border, a claim that was echoed by Iranian officials who blamed the clash on the inexperience and lack of executive capacity of the nascent Taliban government. “The repetition of these issues is a matter of serious concern,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
Iran has built walls at some common border points, but some of the structure has been built inside Iran’s territory and far from the actual border. Apparently, Taliban forces are not aware of international principles and border rights, and instead of official meetings between the two sides or an official investigation, they resorted to shooting at their Iranian counterparts. Iranian media outlets have published pictures and short videos that show the country’s 88th Zahedan Armored Division has been deployed to monitor the situation. “We are ready to give the necessary training to Afghan border guards regarding the identification of border points and so on,” Khatibzadeh added.
Another concern for Iran is the existence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan such as ISIS, the Islamic State–Khorasan Province (ISKP), and al-Qaeda. Iran’s Sunni population is estimated to be approximately 8.6 million or 10% of Iran’s current population, and many live in provinces, such as Baluchistan, or cities, such as Sistan, with widespread poverty. The central government also places religious restrictions on Sunnis. In addition to the common Sunni religion with ISIS, these minorities often have similar habits and rituals as Afghanis and Pakistanis. Tehran is worried that ISIS will exploit these religious and cultural differences to recruit people such as the three Iranian minorities who attacked the Iranian parliament and killed 12 on June 7, 2017.
The ISKP are vehemently anti-Sharia and anti-Iran. They have repeatedly targeted Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia community, which the terrorist group views as an extension of Iran, the center of Shia in the Islamic world. Iranian leaders are concerned about the Taliban’s inability or unwillingness to fight ISKP to prevent terrorist attacks in Iran or against the Shiite minority in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, at least 13 attacks against Hazaras by the ISKP have left many dead and hundreds injured. On April 21, 2022, for example, a suicide bombing at Seh Dokan Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, one of the country’s most prominent Shi’a mosques, left 31 dead and 87 wounded.
The Islamic Republic also hoped that the Taliban would cut ties with al-Qaeda when they came to power. The July 2022 U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul, however, revealed that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were still allied. This has furthered Iran’s mistrust of the Taliban, and caused them to question whether the Afghan government is incapable or unwilling to stop terrorist attacks.
The Taliban’s extreme ethnic and monopolistic approach to power is a serious challenge for Iran, whose social sector and sectarian ideology differs. The majority of the positions in the Taliban’s cabinet, for example, are held by Pashtuns or figures close to Pakistan, including members of networks such as the Haqqani, Mullah Baradar, and Mullah Yaqoob. The Haqqani group is an extreme Sunni group whose ideology is rooted in the hatred of Shiites. They are anti-Iran and have opposed any pro-Iranian figures in the government. This resistance to Iran is so serious that an Afghan media outlet surmised that the March 9, 2023, assassination of the Taliban governor of Balkh Province, Mohammad Dawood Muzammil, might have been a conspiracy between prominent political groups who did approve of Muzammil’s good relationship with the Islamic Republic.
Iran, on the other hand, is against the formation of an exclusive cabinet and has repeatedly recommended the creation of an inclusive government in which all Afghan ethnic groups, including the Hazara Shiites and Tajiks, are included. On a February 2023 visit to China, President Raisi issued a joint statement with Chinese President Xi Jinping that “urged the Afghan governing body to form an inclusive government with the meaningful participation of all ethnic and political groups and eliminate discrimination against women, minorities, and religions.”
The Taliban’s strict rule has caused a massive wave of refugees. It is estimated that 780,000 Afghan refugees, another 2.1 million undocumented Afghans, and nearly 600,000 Afghan-passport holders live in Iran. Since the August 2021 upheaval in Afghanistan, it is estimated that around 500,000 to 1,000,000 Afghans have fled to Iran.
Some of these immigrants have not been registered by Iran upon arrival, and Iran has not set up migrant camps as Turkey did with Syrian refugees. Iran has also not placed any limits on where these Afghans can live, and they are allowed to rent accommodation. There are, however, minor restrictions on opening bank accounts or buying SIM cards because authorities are concerned that this group could include potential terrorists. A May 2022 knife attack on three Iranian clerics in Mashhad was described as a “terrorist attack committed by Takfiri and Salafi” sympathizers, and other incidents have been reported.
The Helmand River originates from the Helmand Province of Afghanistan and after traveling 1,300 km flows into Hamon Lake, which is a common lake between Iran and Afghanistan. This lake is the third-largest lake in Iran and the focal point of the water basin of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan provinces. Drought hit the area – once called the “Grain Storehouse” of Iran for its many agricultural products – in September 2018 and intensified gradually after the decrease of water entering the lake from Afghanistan. Many residents left the area for other cities.
The problem of Iran’s water rights from the Helmand River between Tehran and Kabul is more than a hundred years old. So far, the two countries have signed many agreements to determine the right to water from this river, the last of which is related to the 1973 agreement between the prime ministers of the two countries in which Iran’s water quota was set at 22 cubic meters per second. The Afghans, however, refused to release this water to Iran on the pretext of drought, using pumps along the river and building the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River. President Ghani previously said that he would release Iran’s water rights in exchange for Iranian oil.
The construction of the Kamal Khan Dam is a major issue of contention between Iran and Afghanistan. Work on the dam began in 1996, but construction was suspended because of fighting in Afghanistan and a lack of technical expertise. The project resumed in 2014, and the dam was officially inaugurated in March 2021. Iran has expressed concerns about the dam, fearing it would shut off or dramatically reduce their water supply in Sistan.
Residents protested against the inaction of the Iranian government to pursue water rights, and Raisi responded to the residents’ protests on July 27, 2022: “The administration will not hesitate to pursue the rights of the nation in any way.” In a telephone conversation the next day, the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, told his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, that if the issue of Iran’s water rights was not resolved quickly, it would have “negative effects” on other areas of Iran-Afghanistan relations. “Kabul’s decision to permit Tehran to use its water rights would serve as an essential indicator of the Afghan government’s adherence to its commitments under international law toward the Islamic Republic,” he said.
The Taliban know that violating or publicly opposing the agreement would tarnish the international image they desire. Taliban authorities say they do not oppose Iran’s water rights, yet every time Iranian authorities complain that the Afghanis claim that they have delivered the water according to the agreement or that the drought makes delivery impossible. “Iran has been given the right to water according to the agreement,” Akhtar Mohammad Nusrat, the spokesman for the Ministry of Water and Energy of the Taliban, claimed. “If Iran has a claim in this regard, it should inform the Taliban.”
The Taliban’s excuses and work-arounds are wearing thin for Iranian authorities, and the conflict is yet another reason tensions between the countries are rising. “The Taliban’s arguments regarding the water rights issues are not real or based on scientific logic,” Ali Salajegheh, Iranian vice-president and head of the department of environment said.
Iranian authorities might be discouraged by the Taliban’s governance, but they know that their practical policy of cooperation with the Taliban is the most prudent. Afghanistan represents new political and economic opportunities for Iran, especially since the U.S. levied economic sanctions against Kabul just as they are doing to Iran.
The two embargoed countries have few options for trade outside of each other, so it is likely Iran will continue to interact with Afghanistan, but Tehran will exercise caution when dealing with the Taliban and will try to coax them into behaving more in line with international governmental standards.
 Sajjan M. Gohel, “Iran’s Ambiguous Role in Afghanistan,” Combating Terrorism Center, March 2010, https://ctc.usma.edu/irans-ambiguous-role-in-afghanistan/.
 “Vezarat Etelaat Nam Va Taasvir Mohajeman Dar Hamalt Tehran Ra Montashar Kard” [The Ministry of Intelligence Releases the Names and Pictures of the Attackers in the Tehran Attacks], Radio Farda Persian, June 8, 2017, http://bitly.ws/Cuea.
 “Importance of Close Relations Between the Leaders of Iran and China in Deepening Comprehensive Strategic Partnership/Firm Support for National Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity, National Honour of the Parties,” Official Website of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, February 16, 2023, http://bitly.ws/CuwX.
 “The President at the Meeting of the Council of Ministers: Emphasis on Provision of Drinking, Agricultural Water in Sistan and Baluchistan by Following Hirmand's Water Rights and Other Available Methods,” Official Website of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, July 27, 2022, http://bitly.ws/CuxY.
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