With the U.S. Out of Afghanistan, Will Iran Move In?
What exactly do the Mullahs want from the Taliban?
Analysts now suggest that with the American forces completely out of Afghanistan, Iran’s forces may be tempted to move in. This was the subject of speculation several weeks ago, before anyone contemplated the magnitude of this weekend’s debacle in Afghanistan: “Experts fear Iran will move in after US leaves Afghanistan,” by Tara Kavaler, The Media Line, July 16, 2021:
With the US set to complete its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August, regional analysts fear Iran will fill the void.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies already exercise a powerful influence in the region, be it in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories.
In all of those countries, however, the Shi’a are much more in evidence than they are In Iran. In Yemen, the Shi’a are 50% of the population; in Iraq they are 70%; in Lebanon they are 40% of the population; in Syria the Shi’a are close to 15% of the population, and in addition, they also control the Alawite-officered army. But in Afghanistan, the Shi’a are only 10% of the population and, unlike the Shi’a (Alawites, Ismailis, Twelvers) in Syria, do not control the military. The Shi’a in Afghanistan are ethnically distinct: almost all of them belong to the Hazara tribe, while the Sunni population consists of Pashtun, Tadjiks, and Uzbeks.
Iran is trying to use the situation in Afghanistan both to present itself as a mediator between the Afghan groups, and in the future, as Iran has always done, trying to turn every threat into opportunity,” Dr. Raz Zimmt, an Iran specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
“And if we see what happened in the Arab Middle East over the last decade, where the chaos and the civil wars actually provided Iran with opportunities to be more engaged and more involved, I can’t rule out the possibility that this will happen as well in Afghanistan,” Zimmt said.
The Taliban and the Iranian leadership are not obvious bedfellows, as the former are Sunni extremists, and the latter are radical Shi’ites.
Yet, Arash Azizi, a researcher at New York University and author of “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran’s Global Ambitions,” says it is likely Tehran will expand its reach in Kabul after August.
“The US leaving Afghanistan is bound to increase the influence of the Iranian regime there, which has been preparing for this by burying much of its old antagonism to the Taliban, to the disgust of many Iranians who detest Taliban’s politics and remember how it killed Iran’s own diplomats in Mazar Sharif in 1998,” he told The Media Line, referring to the murder of 10 Iranian diplomats and one journalist at Tehran’s consulate after the group captured the city from the Northern Alliance military front.
Most Iranians – as opposed to the government – refuse to forgive or forget the Taliban’s massacre of ten Iranian diplomats in Mazar-I Sharif, as well as the mass killings of thousands of ethnic Hazaras, who were targeted by the Taliban because they are Shi’a.
“Iran has not only been openly negotiating with the Taliban and increasingly speaks about them as a legitimate factor, for a long time it has actually backed a faction in the Taliban known as the “Mashhad Faction” since it is directed by IRGC agents in the northeastern [Iranian] city of Mashhad,” he added….
The Iranians are apparently willing to deal even with the Taliban, despite its record of massacring Shi’a. Partly this reflects a realistic assessment of Iran’s capabilities at this point. Iran is right now economically so weak that it cannot afford another foreign intervention; it is already stretched thin by the support it gives to the Houthis in Yemen, the Shi’a militias – especially Kata’ib Hezbollah – in Iraq, and most draining of all, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
What does Iran want from the Taliban? It wants, first of all, to ensure that the group’s takeover of Afghanistan, which is not certain but appears likely, does not end in a bloodbath of the country’s only Shi’a population, the Hazaras. The Taliban were in the process of killing large numbers of Hazara when the arrival of the American troops in 2001 caused the Taliban to flee; now that the Americans are out, will the Taliban recommence its slaughter? Can Iran obtain a guarantee from the Taliban not to do so, possibly in exchange for some financial assistance to the new government in Kabul? Second, Iran wants to make sure that the Taliban does not cross the border into Iran, in order to make common cause with Sunni minorities, especially the Balochis in eastern Iran who have in the past few years intermittently risen up against their Shi’a masters in Tehran. In this case, too, it makes more sense for Iran to offer a financial incentive to the Taliban not to help the Balochis, rather than attempt to guard all 500 miles of that porous Afghan-Iran border.
The Iranians are apparently now willing to deal with the uber-Sunnis of the Taliban, but will those Sunni Taliban be willing to make a deal — for money — with the fanatical Shi’a of Iran? Possibly, if the price is right. After all, many Muslim states have refused to criticize China for its persecution of the Uighurs, because they have put their economic well-being above their loyalty to the umma. Why should the Taliban not make the same calculation?