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


IMAGE/The Cradle

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.

The Cradle for more

Comments are closed.