Iran was a key beneficiary of the post-Taliban order and a junior partner in the Pakistan-led anti-American coalition that eventually succeeded on 15 August 2021. Iran would also be a key loser in the new and emerging dynamic in Afghanistan, a regional security black hole.
The Afghan government was composed of people and policies that were mainly amicable to Tehran. For Iran’s sanction-inflicted economy, Afghanistan became a key economic partner. The country was a major destination for Iranian exports, a major source of foreign currency and a channel for money laundering. As two Persian-speaking nations, cultural exchanges flourished.
But the Islamic Republic of Iran was struggling to deal with its version of the big elephant, the US. On one hand, the US was the primary supporter of the new political order that immensely benefited Iran’s national interests; on the other hand, US success in Afghanistan was a serious threat to Iran’s ideological interests and revolutionary identity. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, mutual hostility with the US has been Iran’s overriding fear, mirroring Washington’s “regime change” wish and “containment” policy of Iran.
The “Resistance Crescent
While post-Saddam Iraq became the main scene of competition between the US and Iran, the Taliban was added to Iran’s list of the “Resistance Crescent”, Iran’s anti-American proxies across the region. Revolutionary Iran was patient and lucky in Afghanistan. Pakistan became the main sponsor and supporter of the Taliban, enabling Tehran to focus on Iraq and Syria, while maintaining relatively affordable relations with the Taliban. Washington’s series of blunders in Afghanistan helped its smart adversaries in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s vibrant and open political and media space, growing role of Afghan women and religious minorities, its integration into global networks and institutions were contrasted with revolutionary Iran’s authoritarian, discriminatory, isolated and incompetent governance system. Iran’s growing middle-class constituencies could see the benefits of democracy and amicable relations with the US.
Therefore, the Quds Force, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) external arm became Tehran’s main interlocutor with the Taliban. Iran’s support was not critical to the Taliban’s nationwide insurgency; it only complemented Pakistan’s principal role. Iran’s support was measured and multifaceted. Prior to the collapse of the Afghan government, Iran was actively mediating between the Taliban and their foes, which helped soften significantly the resistance to the Taliban’s blitzkrieg, particularly in the western region.
The collapse of US-led constitutional order on 15 August 2021 was seen as another victory for the “Resistance Crescent”. Not only was the US defeated militarily, but, perhaps more importantly, the revolutionary Iran and other regional authoritarian regimes removed a democratic challenge to their model of governance. Washington’s abandonment of its Afghan allies verified Tehran’s projection of the US as an unreliable and untrustworthy partner.
However, something approximating a national mourning is visible in Iran over the return of the Taliban. The reasons for this are varied. The Taliban are seen as the mortal enemies of Afghanistan’s Shia, Hazara, Uzbek and Persian-speaking communities as well as urbanised Pashtuns. The composition of the Taliban’s cabinet and their signature policies have reinforced the widespread suspicion and fear of the Taliban in Iran. Even the IRGC is not fully satisfied as Taliban factions and commanders favoured by it have been marginalised in the new Taliban-ruled administration in favour of Pakistan’s proxies, the Haqqani group. Iran’s large but suppressed democratic constituencies are gravely dismayed by losing a key democratic ally and inspiration.
Iran and Afghanistan have almost an identical history of struggle for a constitutional, moderate, modern and representative political order. Afghanistan’s modernising monarch, Amanullah Khan and Iran’s Reza Shah pioneered their country’s modernisation journey in the early 20th century. Both leaders and their ensuing democratic and constitutional movements in Afghanistan and Iran were, however, derailed by two forces: Colonial powers and Islamist/clerical resistance and mobilisation. The Islamic revolution in Iran and the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan began within weeks of each other. While the revolutionary clergy in Iran succeeded in capturing Iranian State and society, their Afghan counterpart had to endure different challenges.
The Taliban’s victory in August 2021 realised a decades-old Islamist ambition to have a Sunni version of Iran’s clerical order, minus Iran’s rich natural and institutional resources. The Islamic Emirate of Taliban would follow its Islamic clerical cousin in Iran in transforming Afghan society and State into a “pure Islamic” polity. As with any ideological and transformative movements, Taliban’s vision of a
“pure Islamic” polity would result in a dystopia by making Afghanistan a land of criminality, human suffering, terrorist haven, illicit drug, secessionist movements and another round of Afghanistan’s decades-old cyclical conflict. The unfolding events, including a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and gender apartheid indicate the likely future orientation of the Taliban, despite pro-Taliban’s regional and Western lobbyists.
The Islamist forces in both Iran and Afghanistan are now in charge of the civilisational space of the Persianate and the historic Khorasan, which was among the world’s most aesthetic and cosmopolitan civilisations. Afghanistan’s fate as an Islamist’s dystopia and/or a geopolitical badland is not pre-determined; its vision and potential as a connector remains valid, despite the collapse of its constitutional order. It remains to be seen if the new victors, including Iran’s revolutionary generals are endowed with the foresight and humility to prevent emergence of a deep security hole at the heart of their neighborhood by partnering with the forces that are aligned with Iran’s civilisational identity, national security, regional stability and global peace.
The author is director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former senior policy adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)