Iran established diplomatic ties with the Taliban months after the movement captured power in Kabul nearly two years ago. Despite ongoing tensions between Tehran and Kabul, economic and security considerations as well as divisions in the Afghan anti-Taliban resistance are pushing Iran to fix its ties with the Taliban.
Hassan Kazemi Qomi was appointed as the new Iranian ambassador to Kabul in December 2022, to help ease the tensions with the Taliban. The Taliban demands that Iran releases Afghan prisoners, many of whom are illegal migrants as well as smugglers, and addresses the status of nearly 2.1 million to 2.6 million undocumented Afghans in Iran. The killing of Afghan migrants by Iranian border guards alarmed Kabul. Additionally, the Taliban expressed concern over the systematic denial of the rights of Afghans in Iran including lack of access to education and health. In addition, Afghan migrants in Iran are victims of forced labor. Afghans in Iran face restrictions on their movements, are separated from family members in Afghanistan who cannot enter Iran, and at times face sexual harassment.
In response to these concerns, Iran handed over the keys to the Afghan Embassy in Tehran to Taliban diplomats in February to help address the tensions with Afghanistan. Despite Iranian support for anti-Taliban Afghan groups including the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), the move implies Tehran’s recognition of the Taliban which comes amid the front splintering over claims of its leader Ahmad Masoud monopolizing power and allegations of corruption. The NRF expressed regret over the Taliban takeover of the Afghan Embassy in Tehran.
The Taliban is urging Iran, Afghanistan’s major trading partner, to increase its investments. In March, Iran inaugurated the site of a trade center in Afghanistan to aid commercial and economic activities between the two countries. The 225 kilometer long Khaf-Herat Railway, linking eastern Iran to western Afghanistan, along with commercial activities at the Iranian port of Chabahar, and the removal of trade and transit barriers, are expected to help in boosting trade relations. Iran says it will invest further in Afghanistan’s infrastructure projects including in the mining, energy and transportation sectors.
On the security front, Iran and the Taliban are working to reduce border tensions. In February, the Taliban released an Iranian border guard who was captured at the Milak border crossing, where regular cross-border fire is exchanged. Tensions still persist between Iran and the Taliban over the Helmand River, with Tehran accusing Kabul of depriving it of its share of water through building dams on the river. The controversial Kamal Khan dam was officially opened in March 2021 even though Tehran had attempted to obstruct its construction for years. Iran’s Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber said that Tehran may be forced to launch legal action in international courts to recover its right to the Helmand River, known as Hirmand in Iran. In 1973, the two countries signed the Helmand River Treaty, guaranteeing Iran a monthly allocation of water from the river. Iran insists that its neighbor has failed to meet its part of the deal. Concerned about the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan, particularly in border areas including in the provinces of Herat and Nimroz, Iran recently proposed joint action with the Afghan authorities in the context of the war on terror. It also called on the Taliban to respect Afghan minorities, and it hosted Afghan Shiite delegations. In response, in recent days, Molavi Abdul Kabir who is the political deputy to acting Afghan Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund met with the deputy of the Afghan Shiite Ulema Mohammad Akbari to stress that the Taliban does not view Shiites as different from Sunnis. The Afghan Shiite Ulema in turn called on their followers to interact with the Taliban government in order to resolve differences through coexistence.
Iran’s outreach to the Taliban is in line with China’s demand that regional countries should interact with the movement to prevent Afghanistan’s isolation. In February, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani traveled to Moscow for further consultations about Afghanistan. Russia and Iran are keen to prevent ISIS influence growing in Afghanistan. But Tehran says that Washington’s policies of isolating the Taliban have led to the destabilization of Afghanistan, creating space for terror outfits to emerge such as the Khorasan chapter of ISIS.
Iran’s Office to the United Nations says that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire, with an estimated 28 million people in need of help. The United States sanctioned the Taliban but since February 2022, it allowed Afghan assets frozen overseas to the tune of $3.5 billion to be allocated to a UN-held trust fund to aid the humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. Tehran does not think this move is enough and called for the release of all of Afghanistan’s frozen assets amounting to $9 billion.
Moving forward, Iran will work with the Taliban to show that it is a reliable partner and safeguarding trade and financial interactions with the movement will necessitate expanded cooperation in the security domain. Such cooperation will define the trajectory of Iran-Taliban relations, possibly opening up new diplomatic channels and dialogue forums to resolve outstanding issues between the two sides. However, relations will always remain fragile given the ideological differences even though pragmatism seems to be the approach embraced by the two sides at the moment.