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