Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.{{authorBox.message}}

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Iran File: Iran loses optimism for cooperation with Taliban  

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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Iranian leadership is becoming increasingly skeptical of its ability to build a constructive relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Tehran still likely prefers to work with the Taliban to advance Iranian strategic objectives but is contingency planning in case its relationship with the Taliban deteriorates or the Taliban government collapses. These contingency plans may include cooperating with the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance.

Senior Iranian officials *have criticized the composition of the Taliban’s government and *expressed doubt that the Taliban has made meaningful changes in response to Iranian concerns in recent weeks. Iranian leadership is concerned the Taliban will repress Shia Afghans and has sought to ensure the rights and political representation of this minority under the new Taliban government. The Taliban did not include any minorities in the government announced on September 7, ignoring Iran’s urging. The Taliban later appointed some Hazara and Iran-aligned individuals to key positions on September 20, but Iranian officials *have indicated that the appointments are insufficient.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) still likely prefers to work with the Taliban than fight it. IRGC-affiliated media outlets *chastised Iranian reformists who were *calling for a military intervention into Afghanistan to protect Iranian interests and Shia Afghans from the Taliban. The IRGC outlets *argued that Iran should not intervene in Afghanistan like it has in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The Iranian regime may be preparing to work with the Afghan resistance as part of a larger hedging strategy in case Iran-Taliban relations deteriorate or the Taliban government collapses. The regime *has hosted Afghan warlord and anti-Taliban figure Ismail Khan since he fled Afghanistan on August 15. Khan has since used Iran to *coordinate and meet with other Afghan warlords opposing the Taliban, likely with Iran’s approval. Iran has also been in *contact with Afghan resistance figures based in the Panjshir Valley. These relationships could be a foundation for future cooperation with an anti-Taliban resistance.

Iran File: Tehran faces tough choices in Afghanistan 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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Iranian leadership faces conflicting interests in Afghanistan and will attempt to reconcile them in the months ahead. Tehran prefers to have a constructive relationship with the Taliban but is concerned by the group’s treatment of Afghanistan’s Shi’a population. Regime officials have begun emphasizing the importance of ensuring the political representation and rights of Afghan Shi’as in recent days. These officials *have called for an ethnically and demographically inclusive Afghan government that *represents its people. Whether the Taliban further oppresses Shi’a communities could become a significant factor in determining the future Afghan government’s relationship with Iran.

Tehran will recognize the Taliban government in the coming months if Iranian leaders conclude that they can cooperate with the group. Iran seeks to work with the Taliban to achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan, regardless of official or de facto recognition of the new government in Kabul. These objectives include:

  • Defending Shi’a Afghans,
  • Controlling and limiting refugee flows from Afghanistan,
  • Neutralizing any Taliban or Salafi-jihadi threat to Iran,
  • Securing access to water resources, and
  • Supporting transnational infrastructure projects that connect Iran to Central Asia and China.

Iran and the Taliban will likely cooperate toward most of these goals. Iranian state media *has whitewashed the Taliban’s image and *framed the group as increasingly moderate in recent months, likely to prepare for improved relations. Both sides *have already begun trading Iranian fuel for water.

Iran and the Taliban have also laid the groundwork for a functional security relationship. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani has a close relationship with the Taliban’s new defense minister, Abdul Qayyum Zakir. The Iranian regime reportedly instructed its Iraqi proxies to refrain from entering the Afghan conflict against the Taliban in recent weeks, after proxies expressed interest in protecting Afghan Shi’as.

The Taliban’s treatment of Afghan Shi’as could derail the group’s relationship with the Iranian regime and face Tehran with a difficult strategic choice. Taliban leadership may not be able to prevent all factions of the group from abusing and mistreating Shi’a communities. Iranian leaders’ most aggressive response in such a scenario could be mobilizing their Afghan proxy, the Fatemiyoun Division, to defend the Shi’a minority, risking a breakdown in Iran’s relationship with the Taliban. Alternately, the regime could adopt a more expedient approach, a key concept in Iranian strategic culture, and prioritize relations with the Taliban over its ideological commitment to defending Shi’as abroad, similar to Iran’s hesitancy to jeopardize its relationship with China over their repression of the Muslim Uyghur minority. This approach would risk frustrating members of Iran’s clerical establishment and Axis of Resistance who are committed to protecting the Shi’a. Iran’s most likely course of action would be to calibrate its Afghanistan strategy to balance relations with different actors, compartmentalize tensions from areas of mutual benefit, and obtain economic, military, and political leverage over the Taliban.

Iran File: Meet the Raisi Administration

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has drawn personnel from the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), economic empire, and Judiciary to form his government. Raisi *submitted his 19-person cabinet proposal to Parliament for confirmation on August 11 and *appointed other senior officials to his administration. This cabinet is filled with hardliners, veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, and former members of the Ahmadinejad administration. These individuals represent many of the political allies that Raisi has cultivated throughout his career and whom he trusts.

Raisi’s picks indicate that his administration will prioritize bolstering Iran’s regional network and ties, supporting state control of the economy, and repressing dissidents. Raisi’s nominees have extensive experience overseeing and supporting such activities. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately dictates regime behavior and priorities, but senior cabinet officials advise and influence him. Many are ex officio members of key policy bodies, including the *Supreme National Security Council, *Supreme Economic Coordination Council, *Supreme Cyberspace Council, and *Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, all of which report to the supreme leader.

At least seven members of Raisi’s planned cabinet have ties to the IRGC and its extraterritorial Quds Force, reflecting his desire to prioritize developing Iran’s regional network and ties over engagement with the West. Raisi *articulated this philosophy in his inauguration speech on August 5, in which he promoted a “balanced foreign policy”—one that focuses on regional efforts while reducing dependence on Western sanctions relief. Raisi’s top priority *is improving Iran’s failing economy, and he seeks to leverage his foreign policy toward this larger objective. Raisi’s nominees with ties to the IRGC are:

  • Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts Minister-designate Ezzatollah Zarghami;
  • First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber;
  • Foreign Affairs Minister-designate Hossein Amir Abdol Lahian;
  • Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Minister-designate Bahram Eynollahi;
  • Intelligence and Security Minister-designate Esmail Khatib;
  • Interior Minister-designate Ahmad Vahidi; and
  • Roads and Urban Development Minister-designate Rostam Ghassemi.

Three of these individuals—Foreign Minister-designate Abdol Lahian, Interior Minister-designate Vahidi, and Roads Minister-designate Ghassemi—are close to the Quds Force and its regional activities. Abdol Lahian is a career Iranian diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East. His background sharply contrasts with that of outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has primarily *worked with the US and Europe throughout his career. Abdol Lahian has worked with Hassan Danaei Far and Hassan Kazemi Ghomi, both of whom are Quds Force members, in Iraq and has been viewed as the IRGC’s representative in the Foreign Ministry. He has regularly *met with Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and is the secretary general of the International Conference Supporting Palestinian Intifada. His resume lists positions *including:

  • Parliament speaker special assistant and Parliament international affairs director general (2016–present),
  • Deputy foreign affairs minister for Arab and African affairs (2011–16),
  • Foreign Affairs Ministry Persian Gulf and Middle East director general (2010–11),
  • Iranian ambassador to Bahrain (2007–10),
  • Iranian representative to US-Iran-Iraq talks in Baghdad (2007), and
  • Foreign Affairs Ministry special chief of staff for Iraq (2005 or 2006–07).

Vahidi is a former Quds Force commander and Qassem Soleimani’s predecessor. Vahidi *has been a member of the IRGC’s defense and intelligence apparatus for decades. His experience is primarily in defense doctrine and policy, extraterritorial activities, and defense industries, including ballistic missile development. Vahidi *has held the following posts:

  • Supreme National Defense University president (2016–present),
  • Strategic Defense Research Center director (2013–16),
  • Defense and armed forces logistics minister (2009–13),
  • Deputy defense and armed forces logistics minister (2005—09),
  • IRGC Quds Force commander (1988–98), and
  • IRGC deputy intelligence chief (1984 or 1985–88).

Ghassemi is a Quds Force officer who is deeply tied to the IRGC’s economic network and business dealings in the region. He has spearheaded efforts to export Iranian oil in violation of US sanctions in recent years. He reportedly *planned to send Iranian crude to Syria in July 2021 to smuggle into Lebanon. Ghassemi’s experience *includes:

  • IRGC Quds Force economic deputy (present; exact dates unknown),
  • Iran-Syria Economic Relations Development Committee chairman (present; exact dates unknown),
  • Oil, gas, and petrochemicals minister (2011–13), and
  • Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters commander (2007–11).

Raisi nominated nine individuals tied to the regime’s economic empire for his cabinet, which may further consolidate the state’s dominance of the economy. These nominees are deeply connected to the regime’s bonyads, state-run business conglomerates that control large portions of the Iranian economy and hold regime officials’ assets. Raisi wants to *enhance Iran’s domestic production capacities and is leveraging a group of Iranian businessmen and economic officials to this end. These picks suggest that Raisi may form a cabinet antithetical to former President Hassan Rouhani’s economic philosophy, which *supported privatization. These individuals *are:

  • Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare Minister-designate Hojjatollah Abdol Maleki;
  • Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister-designate Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili;
  • Education Minister-designate Hossein Baghgoli;
  • First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber;
  • Industry, Mines, and Trade Minister-designate Reza Fatemi Amin;
  • Intelligence and Security Minister-designate Esmail Khatib;
  • Oil, Gas, and Petrochemicals Minister-designate Javad Oji;
  • Planning and Budget Organization Director Masoud Mir Kazemi; and
  • Roads and Urban Development Minister-designate Rostam Ghassemi.

Raisi is bringing a group of his former assistants, advisers, and deputies with him to the presidency. Raisi *led a prominent bonyad, Astan Quds Razavi (AQR), from 2016 to 2019 and was later *Judiciary chief from 2019 to 2021. Five of Raisi’s picks previously *worked at AQR or its subsidiaries, and six at the Judiciary. These individuals comprise a cadre of officials whom Raisi trusts and may reflect how Raisi derives political support from the regime’s economic and judicial components.

Raisi seeks political support from Khamenei and the IRGC as well and has tailored his cabinet to preserve their backing for him and his government. Raisi is a top contender to become Iran’s next supreme leader, and he needs support from Khamenei and the IRGC to bolster his prospects. Raisi’s cabinet and the policies it pursues may therefore be viewed as an extension of Khamenei’s and, to a lesser extent, the IRGC’s policy preferences. Moderate and reformist candidates are notably absent from Raisi’s proposed government, highlighting how hardliners—with Khamenei’s and the IRGC’s backing—are asserting their control over the formal government.

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Sep '21