When the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on August 15, the Iran-backed Afghan Shiite militia known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade adopted a conciliatory tone welcoming the change, and called for holding inter-Afghan talks to ensure a peaceful transition of power, signaling that it was prepared to accept Taliban rule. The militia’s position was not surprising considering reports that Iran may have aided the Taliban for years to expedite the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. By embracing the Taliban’s rule now, Iran and the Fatemiyoun are playing their cards safe and buying time to calculate their next moves.
The Fatemiyoun says it will await directives from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei concerning its next moves, but promises that the current developments in Afghanistan will ultimately lead to a more beautiful world in which religious and human values as well as dignity are nurtured and upheld. This ambiguous stance shows that the militia and its Iranian backers will not relinquish attempts to influence Afghanistan’s next phase.
The aforementioned indicates Tehran’s desire to avoid provoking hostilities with the Taliban for now. Tehran has readily used the group’s preferred title for Afghanistan, i.e., the Islamic Emirate, to show its willingness to work and accept it as a legitimate ruling actor. While Afghan immigrants in Iran were chanting death to the Taliban in recent days, perhaps on Tehran’s directive, they also called for a peace track with the group.
At the moment it is unclear what Iran and the Fatemiyoun hope to gain from peace talks with the Taliban. In December 2020, Iran’s then Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that the Fatemiyoun could possibly help Afghanistan in its fight against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Iran is also wanting the Taliban to protect Afghan Shiites. To show good faith and a willingness to accommodate Tehran, the Taliban dispatched representatives to take part in the Shiite-led Ashura ceremonies across Afghanistan including in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.
Earlier, hoping to encourage talks between Iran and the Taliban, the Fatemiyoun did not partake in the conflict that ensued between the Afghan government and the group over the summer. Top Fatemiyoun commanders and officials refused to issue statements on social media condemning the Taliban. The Fatemiyoun’s only virtual media outlet, which issues its formal positions, made it clear that its Afghan fighters remained deployed in Syria and Lebanon, where they were fighting against ISIS, and continued to defend Syrian Shiite shrines on Iran’s behalf.
A month before the Taliban took over Kabul, the Fatemiyoun even took the extra step of issuing a statement glorifying the developments in Afghanistan and describing them as a turning point for the Muslim world. The Fatemiyoun outlined several scenarios that could arise, including a civil war. Specifically, the militia warned that the United States could launch a soft war after withdrawing from Afghanistan to divide the country along ethnic or religious lines and blame the unrest on it.
However, Iran and the Fatemiyoun are walking on eggshells trying to appease the Taliban while trying to come across as acceptable peace brokers for Afghanistan. They might be united with the Taliban in their mutual desire to eject US forces permanently from Afghanistan, however, Taliban rule in the country is unlikely to play into Iranian hands. Reports indicate that the Fatemiyoun may have approximately 20,000 fighters. Although the Fatemiyoun firmly rejects war as a solution for Afghanistan’s complex problems, many Afghans see its conduct as immoral and illegal because it is fighting on Iran’s behalf in other countries. Reports have even surfaced indicating that the militia may have offered to defend Afghan government strongholds in Herat, on the border with Iran, before the Taliban took over power.
On July 28, the Fatemiyoun said it had no plans to fight the Taliban, rejecting reports that it planned to fight the group and labeled these reports as propaganda circulated by the United States, Israel and some Arab governments. However, the former head of Afghanistan’s national security Rahmatullah Nabil said some 2,500 to 3,000 Fatemiyoun fighters had returned from Syria to Afghanistan.
The Fatemiyoun’s refusal to issue a clear position on the Taliban is worrisome. The Fatemiyoun is seen as a terrorist outfit inside Afghanistan. Advertisements in Afghanistan placed the flags of the Fatemiyoun Brigade and ISIS side-by-side to demonstrate that both posed a threat to the country. Moreover, its fighters who have returned to Afghanistan as the civil war in Syria has subsided are seen by Afghans as having split loyalties to Iran, and might attempt to influence Afghanistan’s future. Even the former Afghan National Unity government, which led Kabul before the Taliban’s takeover, generally supported any group fighting against ISIS but it never endorsed the Fatemiyoun’s activities as this would have exacerbated internal tensions and divides between Shiites and Sunnis.
A concern for the Taliban is that the Fatemiyoun is trained by Iran’s Quds Force and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and could possibly destabilize Afghanistan along ethnic and religious lines when called on by Iran. Some experts believe, for example, that Iran and the Fatemiyoun were attempting to create a separate federal structure in Herat that would be largely Shiite dominated. The Iran-backed militia is also said to be well armed with tanks, munition, anti-tank missiles, along with a mobilized force that is capable of breaking enemy lines on the battlefield.
While there has been close contact between Iran and the Taliban for years now, Tehran is suspicious about the Doha Accord between Washington and the group which includes anti-terrorism clauses. It remains to be seen how Iran will use the Fatemiyoun moving forward, raising suspicions over its continued presence in Afghanistan. Iran’s strategy will likely evolve based on the Taliban’s next steps toward Afghan Shiites and the Fatemiyoun. For now, it is unlikely that the Fatemiyoun will pose a threat to the Taliban, but it is highly likely that it will continue to organize and mobilize Shiites which constitute about 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population, and use Afghan Hazaras as leverage to ensure Iranian influence and interests are kept in place.