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Why is Iran growing closer to Taliban? The answer lies in the history of their stormy relationship

Sunni Taliban has committed unspeakable atrocities against Shiites, mainly Hazaras

ebrahim-raisi-iran-ap Iran President Ebrahim Raisi | AP

China, Russia and Iran are the three countries who are expected to be among the first to recognise Taliban. While the positions of China and Russia are understandable to an extent, questions are raised as to how quickly Iran has embraced a former foe that it has had a stormy relationship since the 1990s.

Iran has already warmed to Taliban and is willing to do business with it. Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh had said: “The Taliban are part of the future of Afghanistan. We have said that we are committed to facilitating these negotiations, and everybody’s voice should be heard". 

What are Iran's contours of relations with the Islamist militia group?

By all metrics, Shia-majority Iran and Taliban should have nothing to do with each other. In fact, at the height of the civil war in 1998 in Afghanistan, Taliban stormed the city of Mazar-i-Sharif on August 8, trapped eight Iranian diplomats and correspondents from the state news agency IRNA in the consulate building, and murdered them all. The incident brought the two countries to the brink of war. The Sunni supremacist Taliban has long harboured anti-Shia sentiments, committing the worst atrocities against the Hazara minority in the country. Iran, on its end, had armed the Northern Alliance to fight against the Taliban in the 90s, which rankled with the militant group for a long period of time. 

To understand Iran's marriage of convenience is to understand the up-and-down relations between the Islamic Republic and Afghanistan, and the complex contours of Central Asian politics. As Mohsen M. Milani explored in detail in Middle East JournalIran has created "spheres of influence" inside Afghanistan. "During the Soviet occupation (1979-88), Iran created an ideological sphere of influence by empowering the Shi'ites. Iran then created a political sphere of influence by unifying the Dari/Persian-speaking minorities, who ascended to power. Iranian policies added fuel to the ferocious civil war in the 1990s. [In the late 90s] Iran helped create a sphere of resistance to counter the Kabul-Islamabad-Riyadh axis by supporting the Northern Alliance."

Now, Iran's major priorities are multi-fold. The first is to maintain the trade relations with Afghanistan, act as the fulcrum for trade across Central Asia (possible through Afghanistan). The second is to prevent any instability in the region which could result in mass migrations through Iranian borders, which Tehran, reeling under Western sanctions, is ill-equipped to deal with.

The third and the most important is border security. Tehran fears that Taliban could harbour an array of insurgents and terrorists that cause unrest in regions like Sistan and Baluchistan. There are indications that the Taliban is willing to play ball with Iran on the issue. As former ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote in The Cradle, Taliban had recently eliminated Amir Naroui, a top leader of the anti-Iran terrorist organisation Jaish al-Adl, which pursues Baluchistan independence and conducts attacks against the personnel of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Any guarantees on the security front goes a long way for Iran. 

What is in it for the Taliban? As reported by Bloomberg, Iran is a useful conduit to the Western markets for Afghan opium, the militia’s main source of revenue. They could tolerate Tehran for that privilege.

There are numerous questions as to how other terror groups affiliated to the Taliban, and still committing unspeakable atrocities against Shias, would view Iran. However, a deal seems to be in place for now: Iran needs Taliban, and Taliban needs Tehran. 

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