Iran’s Option of Military Confrontation With the Taliban

ByDr. Yahya Bouzidi

What is happening now between Iran and Afghanistan can be described as conventional problems that exist between neighboring countries. The management of these problems ranges from the employment of peaceful or military tools.  In the case of Iran and Afghanistan, the recent diplomatic contact between the Iranian government and the Taliban and the several bilateral meetings which aimed to resolve the contentious issues between the two sides did not rule out the military option.  A possible military confrontation between the two sides rests on what option Iran may decide to resort to and the response of the Taliban — based on each side’s political and military outlook as well as expertise.

A few days ago, an armed confrontation broke out on the  Afghan-Iran border resulting in casualties on both sides.  Ahead of this confrontation, Iranian President  Ebrahim Raisi sent stern warnings to the Taliban about his country’s share of water from the Helmand River. The Taliban deemed these warnings as an insult. Many of the group’s officials vowed in their responses to fight Iran, like they had fought against the United States. In light of this mutual escalation of words,  border skirmishes are likely to recur between the two sides and this may escalate into a major military confrontation against the backdrop of several intractable disputes, most notably the  Helmand River’s water distribution, the presence of Afghan refugees in Iran, and drug trafficking into Iranian territories from Afghanistan.

The geographical proximity and the nature of the outstanding issues between Iran and Afghanistan create an environment for conventional military confrontation between the two sides.  The exchange of fire between border guards may lead to the mobilization of the two sides’ forces, hence resulting in a battle, with each side trying to defeat the other and occupy rival territories; and each side may link withdrawal with certain conditions.  Evidently, Iran wants to avoid military confrontation of this kind because of its high cost without any guarantees that its objectives would be met;   either Kabul submitting to its demands in relation to water distribution or removing the Taliban and replacing it with a more acceptable regime.  In spite of its great power, the United States failed in its mission to topple the Taliban regime.   The US-fashioned political system that was in place for two decades collapsed immediately after the last US plane took off from Kabul airport, and it did not last for one year as  US intelligence had predicted. This Iranian calculus is based on the experience of the First Gulf War — which Iranian decision-makers are keenly aware of — as Iran was forced to drink from the “poisoned chalice” after eight years of war.  Hence, Iran rules out the military option but may resort to it out of necessity in the future.

Iran still has the option to initiate a hybrid war, which it is accustomed to and proficient in. Over the past decades, Iran established a model of governance that blended state institutions with revolutionary principles.  Despite the differences between the army and the IRGC,  in light of the latter dominating state apparatuses,  Iran’s decision-makers have been able to manage both and devise a consistent strategy that unifies the country’s various military, security and political agencies so that set goals can be implemented both internally and externally.  Iran has worked to export its model of governance to its spheres of influence and even establish armed proxies that now play a more important role than the Iranian army, just like the IRGC on Iran’s landscape.  This strategy has allowed Iran to intervene in many arenas of regional conflict with minimal direct military intervention. Therefore, this is a viable option for Iran and it may attempt to implement it in Afghanistan, as it did previously.

However, this option is rather ineffective when it comes to Afghanistan, as the Taliban’s model of governance has features that are similar to the Iranian one.  The group’s radical principles still dominate how its leadership manages state affairs. Therefore, any attempt to deploy  Shiite militias and opposition actors against the Taliban will face a reaction completely different from what Iran is used to.  States in which the political systems are well-established, generally, act in accordance with international norms and laws,  as Azerbaijan did at the beginning of last April. Baku’s Foreign Ministry declared four Iranian diplomats unwelcome and gave them 48 hours to leave the country. Adding to the violence that the Taliban has unleashed on any group proven to have relations with Iran,  the group will not hesitate to strike Iranian targets directly, regardless of international law, as it does not recognize its legitimacy in the first place. For example,  the Taliban killed two Iranian diplomats in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, and this experience will definitely be considered by  Iranian decision-makers, just as the experience of the  First Gulf War which shifted their calculations in the context of whether to use the military card or not.

 A military confrontation between Iran and the Taliban, with its various options, poses a grave danger to Iran. In addition, despite the Taliban’s violations of international standards and its conventional military weaknesses, it may have the upper hand if it enters into a conflict with Iran. Hence, Iran is very afraid of the Taliban as mentioned by Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the former head of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. He also criticized  Iran’s foreign policy toward the Taliban.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Yahya Bouzidi
Dr. Yahya Bouzidi
Researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah)