As the situation in Afghanistan remains volatile and dynamic, neighboring countries have boosted their military presence along the shared borders in response to fears of an influx of Afghan refugees. Iran shares a 900 kilometer border with Afghanistan and recent events have multiplied the risks facing Tehran. Iran is concerned about how the Taliban’s takeover will impact its border security, with an expected rush of Afghans to the shared border region. According to UNHCR data issued last year, around 2 million undocumented Afghans and around 600,000 Afghan passport holders reside in Iran. Amid a surge in coronavirus infection cases in Iran and its deteriorating economic situation, Tehran is worried about the aforementioned worsening because of a further influx of Afghan refugees. As a result, Iran has deployed more forces along the shared border.
Iran’s Ministry of Interior has ordered Iranian border guards to take necessary steps to avoid any tensions arising along the shared borders. The ministry’s Border Affairs Unit General Director Hossein Ghassemi recently told the Iranian press that the forces deployed along the border provinces with Afghanistan have been ordered to prevent Afghan refugees from entering Iranian territories. Moreover, in recent weeks Iranian officials have issued several statements to ensure calmness prevails in the border provinces. The Commander of the North-eastern Regional Command of the Iranian Army Brigadier General Reza Azarian during his inspection of Taybad city in the Razavi Khorasan Province said that there “wasn’t any problem along the border and all the people are safe.” He also added that although the conditions in Afghanistan are not conducive for security along the eastern border, further Iranian deployments had calmed the security situation in the region to a great extent. Several reports have also indicated that the Artesh and the IRGC have deployed more troops along with military battle tanks, armored carriers and surveillance systems near Iran’s eastern borders. Moreover, the Iranian Air Force has also reportedly put its combat aircraft deployments on high alert.
Iran’s strategy is to minimize tensions and secure the eastern border to prevent the influx of Afghan refugees. Iran’s recent actions also indicate that deterring the Taliban by avoiding a direct confrontation is a priority, hence, Tehran has maintained communication with the Taliban, especially in Afghanistan’s Herat, Farah, and Nimroz provinces. Several local news reports revealed that the IRGC has remained in close contact with the Taliban. Mullah Abdul Razek, one of the most important Taliban leaders in Herat and Farah provinces, had previously confirmed the relationship between the IRGC and the Taliban.
Since Iran has already established close contacts with the Taliban, it is most likely that Tehran will continue to coordinate with the movement in regard to several aspects. Iran is fully aware that the Taliban will have complete control over several strategic border locations. Earlier this year, the Taliban delegation led by the Taliban’s political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar met with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. Baradar specifically highlighted the need to safeguard border security between Iran and Afghanistan, pledging that the Taliban would fully cooperate and coordinate regarding this matter. Another important aspect is the prospective role of the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Several intelligence reports have indicated that the Quds Force played a key role in recruiting and training Shiites from the Hazara community to fight in Syria. This community largely resides along Afghanistan’s border provinces. Moreover, Iranian officials have acknowledged the IRGC’s relationship with this militia as stated by former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif last year. In light of the aforementioned, there is a possibility that Iran could consider a strategy which it has pursued in the region — the strengthening of proxy militias to avert repercussions on its national security. In addition, Iran could deploy some of its militias from the region to the eastern border region in Afghanistan to keep Afghan refugees back.
Tehran will make extensive efforts to avert the challenges arising from its eastern border and keep its border forces on high alert. Evaluating the recent statements from Iranian military and government officials, Iran is likely to continue to soften its approach towards the Taliban to mitigate security risks and challenges despite past conflict and ideological differences between the two sides.