The rare face-to-face meeting between the Taliban and the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led-by Ahmad Massoud, turned out to be fruitless as widely expected. Iran’s success in arranging the January 9 meeting was a surprise. Former Governor of Herat Mohammad Ismail Khan and the Islamic Brotherhood leader Maulavi Habibullah Hesam also held talks with the Taliban delegation. Russia and Pakistan have made similar mediation attempts between opposing Afghan factions but without any breakthrough.
Since the takeover of Kabul on August 14, 2021, and the fall of the Panjshir Valley in early September, Taliban officials have continued to face occasional attacks. The group has not suffered any significant losses despite the fact that it strongly opposes a broader-based or multiparty government.
Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi led a delegation to Tehran on January 8, with talks focusing on trade, oil, transit, border security and engagement with other stakeholders. Muttaqi had a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as well as with Hassan Kazemi Qomi, the Iranian president’s special envoy to Afghanistan. The limelight has remained on the intra-Afghan meeting, and little was made public about the outcome of the Tehran-Kabul parleys.
Since escaping the Panjshir Valley in September, Massoud fled to Tajikistan but keeps shuttling between Dushanbe and Mashhad while Ismail Khan has remained in Tehran, where he received his early education about two decades ago. Iran has long banked on the Tajik-Sunni-Afghan family from the Panjshir Valley. Ahmad Shah Massoud had enjoyed close ties with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). After his assassination in 2001, Qassem Soleimani and Esmail Qaani – who was responsible for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia at the time – further cemented relations with Massoud’s brothers and his young son.
Though the outcome of the mediation bid was not very different from the past, Iran’s ability to bring Muttaqi and some Afghan opposition figures around a table indicates the significant success of its Afghan outreach. When the Taliban ran over the Panjshir Valley on September 6, Tehran reacted furiously. Iran’s Foreign Ministry and state-run media outlets accused Pakistan of sending military support for the last remaining valley to fall. Islamabad denied the claims as did the Taliban leadership.
Iran’s relationship with the Taliban has remained marred by several lows and rare highs. Recent fierce fighting along the Iran-Afghanistan border claimed the lives of many troops before a ceasefire was agreed. Iran remains wary of the Sunni Taliban group which has close ties with neighboring Pakistan while sharing Sunni beliefs with Turkey and the Gulf states. On the other hand, Kabul is dependent on Tehran for hydrocarbons, electricity and trade.
By ensuring that the Afghan foreign minister’s visit included a meeting with the defiant NRF leader, Iran emphasized its significance for Afghanistan and other foreign stakeholders in the country. For instance, Norway’s invitation to the Afghan foreign minister did not include any interaction with Afghan opposition figures. The Nordic state did not intend to make a superficial statement or gesture but effectively wanted to help Afghanistan overcome its woes, hence the meetings focused on the country’s needs and Western concerns about human rights. An important question is whether or not Iran holds enough sway over the Taliban to arrange a follow-up mediatory effort. The likelihood is minuscule. Since the Tehran visit, the NRF claims to have attacked Taliban posts in the Panjshir Valley while admitting to having lost a prominent commander too.
For the Taliban, recognition from Afghanistan’s neighboring states or the West is not particularly important as long as it does not face significant costs. Taliban officials have traveled to many important capitals so far where they have been given full protocol. Russia, which has allegedly provided weapons to Massoud’s group, is acting more pragmatically. Like Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors including Tajikistan, India has so far refrained from fueling an armed resistance against the Taliban.
More consequential than the mediation efforts is Iran’s posturing as a “friend” of Afghanistan, supporting peace and stability in the country. Not only is Iran nervous about the pro-Khomeini Shiite Hazara community but also of other Sunni states’ influence in a predominantly Sunni Afghanistan. Behind Iran’s Afghan outreach is also its narrative regarding the way US sanctions hurt the common people. Its leaders, as well as media outlets, have repeatedly stated that Tehran will not be able to take in more Afghan refugees nor host the existing ones if the economic curbs on the country are not lifted soon. Already, Tehran hardly stops Afghans from attempting to cross into Turkey enroute to Europe. The Taliban, just like Iran, are acting pragmatically amid its global isolation.