Why is Iran so upset over Taliban cabinet and takeover of Panjshir Valley?
Iran seems upset after the Taliban announced their interim cabinet preceded by the insurgent group’s military takeover of the Panjshir valley, the last anti-Taliban front in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, Tehran has also accused Pakistan of “interfering” in the Panjshir valley by allegedly helping the Taliban with drone strikes.
Why has Iran, which forged a tactical working relationship with the Taliban over the last few years, suddenly changed its tone? What are the Iranian concerns regarding recent developments in Afghanistan and what does it mean for Taliban-Iran future ties?
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, Iran adopted a neutral line, while hoping for an inclusive and broad-based government. However, the Taliban’s announcement of their 33-member interim cabinet, accommodating its old guard, while giving no representation to women or the Shia community, angered Iran.
On September 8, during a virtual meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, Tehran’s top diplomat Hossein Amirabdollahian said, “Experience has shown that a non-inclusive government does nothing to help stability, peace and progress in Afghanistan. So, our expectation from the foreign ministers is to announce the necessity for the formation of an inclusive government with a unified voice.” Likewise, Iran’s security chief Ali Shamkhani, in his Twitter message, expressed concern over “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention, and the use of military” instead of negotiations to settle differences.
During the last few years, Iran and the Taliban developed a narrow convergence of interest, despite being sectarian rivals, against the US and Daesh’s presence in Afghanistan. Iran allowed the Taliban to open an office known as the Mashhad Shura and operate training centers in Kerman, Zahedan and Tehran. However, the Iran-Taliban short-lived honeymoon ended with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rise to power. It is essential to mention that in 1998 Iran and the Taliban almost went to war following the killing of nine Iranian diplomats at its Mazar-i-Sharif consulate in Afghanistan.
Despite these tensions, Taliban-Iran ties are nowhere near the rupture point. Iranian cooperation with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will continue, despite the loud and shrill political rhetoric.
Abdul Basit Khan
Iran is upset about the absence of the Hazara Shia community in the Taliban’s interim cabinet and the sidelining of the pro-Iran Taliban commanders Qayum Zakir, Sadr Ibrahim and Daud Muzamil. Iran believes Pakistan has used its influence over the Taliban to sideline the pro-Iran Taliban commanders. Tehran has interpreted these moves as Pakistan’s efforts to marginalize Iran in post-US Afghanistan.
For instance, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said, “Afghanistan’s history shows that foreign intervention both direct and indirect, has resulted in nothing but defeat for the aggressor force, and the Afghan people are independence-seeking and zealous, and certainly any intervention is doomed.”
During the US-Taliban negotiations, Qatar played a central role as the host venue of the Taliban’s political office. Iran and Qatar have close diplomatic ties. Tehran’s proximity with the Taliban and Qatar prompted it to believe that it could keep its Middle Eastern rivals out of post-US Afghanistan.
In recent years, Iran worked with the Taliban and Islamabad to carve out greater space for itself in Afghanistan. Likewise, the signing of the China-Iran deal brought Islamabad and Tehran under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) framework. This further shaped Iran’s strategic calculus that it would succeed in advancing its sectarian interests in Afghanistan.
However, recent calls of the Saudi and UAE crown princes to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Afghanistan have alienated Iran. Domestically, Iran is also under tremendous public and media pressure for engaging with the Taliban or maintaining neutrality despite the exclusion of the Hazara Shia community. Hence, the hard-hitting Iranian statements criticizing the Taliban and Pakistan are also for domestic consumption.
Despite these tensions, Taliban-Iran ties are nowhere near the rupture point. Iranian cooperation with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will continue, despite the loud and shrill political rhetoric. At the same time, Tehran would do well to do some soul searching for its meddling in Syria, Iraq and Yemen before pointing false accusatory fingers at Islamabad for interfering in Afghanistan.
– The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher.