Where Iran Stands on the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

In Brief

Where Iran Stands on the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

Iran welcomes the departure of U.S. forces from its eastern neighbor but could have concerns about the potential reemergence of Sunni-Shia tensions with the Taliban back in power.

How has Iran reacted to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan?

It has welcomed the departure of U.S. forces and pledged to work with the Taliban government. New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said, “America’s military defeat must become an opportunity to restore life, security, and durable peace in Afghanistan.”

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But the collapse of the Afghan government came at a time when the Iranian political system was in transition, with Raisi in the process of taking over the presidency. Thus, most of the domestic attention has been focused on cabinet selection and the confirmation process for ministers. Surging COVID-19 infections in Iran have also overshadowed the situation in Afghanistan.

Iran-Afghanistan relations became very tense after the murder of Iranian diplomats under the previous Taliban regime. Is any similar Sunni-Shia friction evident now?

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The two countries nearly went to war in 1998 because of the murder of those Iranian diplomats. But during the long years of Taliban insurgency, this friction waned. The insurgency was also a source of disorder that kept the United States busy in Afghanistan, which served Iranian strategic purposes.

It’s also worth noting that during the post-2001 insurgency, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was active in Afghanistan. By 2013, it was recruiting tens of thousands of Afghans [PDF] to serve in one of the militias it used in Syria. The question now is whether Iran can continue recruiting Afghans for its various militias under the new Taliban reign.

But the situation today is different. The Sunni Taliban are no longer just a guerrilla force; they now rule the country. An offshoot of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, another Sunni group, also operates in Afghanistan, and the country could attract similar militant groups, which would raise concerns in Iran. Instability in Afghanistan, conflict among its various factions, and Sunni militancy all present Iran with a strategic problem that it likely did not anticipate. The new Iranian government was already dealing with a struggling economy and a third wave of COVID-19 infections. Now it faces unpredictability on its eastern front.

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Iran has hosted millions of Afghan refugees in the past, and many remain. Will it allow more into the country?

This time around, Iran is unlikely to welcome a large number of refugees, like it did in the 1980s. The Iran-Afghanistan border is closed, and with the COVID-19 pandemic raging in Iran, the regime is looking to limit any further spread from outside the country.

Will the U.S. departure from Afghanistan have any bearing on Iranian foreign policy?

It is unlikely that developments in Afghanistan will alter Iran’s level of support for proxies in Syria and particularly Iraq; backing proxies is already a strategic priority. But if the sectarian divide between Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan sharpens, Iran could further rely on the Shiite proxies that it has trained and armed. The new Iranian government has pledged to prioritize relations in the immediate neighborhood more than its predecessor, which spent much of its time trying to draw Western investors and dealing with the nuclear issue.

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Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani face the Iranian and Afghan flags
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stands next to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a ceremony following the latter’s arrival in Tehran in 2015. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic Republic’s approach toward nuclear negotiations with the United States likely won’t change because of the withdrawal. Iran’s position has remained consistent: it will remain party to the nuclear deal as long as the United States returns to the agreement under the previous conditions, with no changes. Both former President Hassan Rouhani and now Raisi have stressed that Iran will neither negotiate an extension of the current agreement nor accept the inclusion of its missile capability in any talks, as has been raised by the United States.

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