Support for Afghan Proxies
Iranian influence in Afghanistan has deep-seated roots reaching back to the 15th century when the Afghan city of Herat was the capital of the Persian Empire. Iran also shares ties with various groups of Afghanistan, particularly the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Shi’a Hazara. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Iran supported Shi’a resistance efforts and opened its borders to Afghan refugees. After the first Gulf War, Iraq, which had posed the major proximate threat to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was effectively neutralized. Neighboring civil war-torn Afghanistan supplanted Iraq as the main threat facing Iran, and in 1996, the extremist Sunni jihadist movement, the Taliban, rose to power, backed by Iranian geopolitical rivals Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
During the Afghan Civil War, Iran defensively sought to cultivate military and political influence in Afghanistan by backing elements hostile to the Taliban with ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic affinities toward Iran, namely the Hazaras in the West of the country and Tajiks in the North who formed the core of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, more commonly referred to as the “Northern Alliance.” By 1998, Iran had amassed 70,000 IRGC troops along its border with Afghanistan to defend against spillover from the conflict next door.
In August of 1998, tensions between Iran and the Taliban reached a boil after the Taliban captured the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a cosmopolitan and diverse city with a large Shi’a Hazara population. The Taliban brutalized the town’s Hazaras, raping and massacring hundreds. Amidst the chaos, Taliban soldiers besieged an Iranian consulate and executed nine Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist. As demands for retaliation grew, Iran stationed an additional 200,000 conventional forces along the border.
Ultimately, however, Iran, which has since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War sought to avoid confrontation and heavy casualties, refrained from direct intervention and opted instead to escalate its strategy of proxy warfare. Iran ramped up its support for the Northern Alliance, with former IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly taking an active role in directing the Northern Alliance’s operations from Tajikistan, where the group had established bases from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan and coordinate resupply of its fighters.
The Taliban offered Al Qaeda safe haven for its terrorist operations, leading the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to authorize covert assistance to the Northern Alliance in 1999 to facilitate operations against the growing Al Qaeda threat. This marked a rare instance of the U.S. and Iran independently backing a guerilla movement, albeit for different ends. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, America initiated hostilities against the Taliban government, a welcome development for Iran at the time.
While wary of the expanding U.S. military footprint in its environs, Tehran was willing to leverage American military might to neutralize its most pressing adversary. The U.S. and Iran held several rounds of secret shuttle diplomacy, leading to covert cooperation that went as far as Iran sharing intelligence detailing Taliban positions for the U.S. to strike. While many in Iran were skeptical about the efficacy of partnering with the U.S., Soleimani saw the situation as a win-win for Iran. He posited that even if the U.S. ended up betraying Iran after toppling the Taliban, their enemy would be defeated, and America would end up entangled in Afghanistan, similar to the Soviet Union. “Americans do not know the region, Americans do not know Afghanistan, Americans do not know Iran,” warned Soleimani.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran would ultimately sour following President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, in which Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were labeled the “axis of evil,” and the subsequent March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran’s threat perception changed as the U.S. was no longer the distant “Great Satan,” but a proximate threat with an expanding military footprint in the region that had toppled two neighboring governments and was ultimately bent on Iranian regime change.
As such, Iran’s primary objectives in Afghanistan shifted toward ensuring that the country remained sufficiently weak as to preclude a further military threat toward it, and imposing costs on the U.S. to compel its withdrawal. Iran’s long-term interest is in a stable, friendly, and weak Afghanistan in order to prevent drug trafficking, terrorism, and refugee flows from spilling over into Iran. To that end, Iran pursued foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and assistance in the fields of infrastructure, agriculture, energy, and communications.
At the same time, however, Iran played what former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates termed a “double game” in Afghanistan, seeking good relations with the central government while also modestly funneling arms to insurgents of various ethnic and ideological stripes through the IRGC-Quds Force, according to U.S. intelligence. The haphazard way Iran has sought to play all sides off each other in pursuit of its short-term interests imperils its longer-term interest in a stable, friendly Afghanistan. It has also engendered enmity among broad swathes of the population, as evidenced by pushback and demonstrations against Iranian meddling in recent years.
Economic and Cultural Influence
Tehran has dramatically expanded its economic ties with Afghanistan in recent years to buy influence in the country. According to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce, Iran surpassed Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner from March 2017-2018—with Iran exporting goods worth $1.98 billion. While foreign investment supports Afghanistan’s development, Iranian investment seeks to undermine NATO and the Afghan regime’s efforts to stabilize the country. In 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted that Iran was paying his government $2 million annually, but U.S. officials believe that this is just the “tip of the iceberg” in a multitude of Iranian cash inflows to Afghan groups and officials.
Iran’s economic influence in Afghanistan is best illustrated by its development of the western city of Herat, where Iran has developed the electrical grid, invested heavily in the mining industry, and invested over $150 million to build a school, mosque, residential apartments, a seven-mile road, and even stocked store shelves with Iranian goods. According to the head of Herat’s provincial council, Nazir Ahmad Haidar, “Iran has influence in every sphere: economic, social, political and daily life. When someone gives so much money, people fall into their way of thinking. It’s not just a matter of being neighborly.”
Furthermore, Iranian influence in Afghanistan extends past its economy and into Afghan culture and religion. Coordinated by an official under the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran has funded the development of Shi’a organizations, schools, and media outlets in order to expand Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to Iran, has stated that “thousands of Afghan religious leaders are on the Iranian payroll.”
Recently, Iran has bridged its regional influence by creating the IRGC-backed Fatemiyoun Division, a group of Afghan Shi’a fighting in support of the al-Assad regime of Syria. Often recruiting Afghan Shi’a refugees in Iran, and to a lesser extent, Shi’as within Afghanistan itself, the IRGC offers a $500/month stipend and Iranian residency in return for joining pro-Assad militias. The Fatemiyoun was upgraded from a brigade to a division in 2015, indicating the militia’s ranks had grown to at least 10,000 fighters, with some estimates reaching as high as 20,000. The Fatemiyoun militants in Syria have typically been dispatched to dangerous fighting on the front lines with inadequate training and tactical preparation, leading to high casualty rates. Fatemiyoun survivors and deserters have described heavy-handed recruitment methods, including threats of being expelled from Iran and handed over to the Taliban in order to coerce marginalized Afghan refugees to fight in a war they have little understanding of or connection to. Human Rights Watch has identified at least 14 minors who fought and died in Syria for the Fatemiyoun Division.
Support for the Taliban
Demonstrating the lengths Tehran was willing to go to repel U.S. influence after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the primary groups the Quds Force began arming was its former mortal enemy, the Taliban. Beginning in 2006, the IRGC-Quds Force began “training the Taliban in Afghanistan on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons” in addition to providing armaments “including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives.” Iran has also permitted the Taliban free movement of foreign fighters through Iranian territory to support its insurgency in Afghanistan.
On October 25, 2007, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated the IRGC-Quds Force under Executive Order 13382 for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Treasury added three Iranian IRGC Quds Force operatives and one “associate” to its list of global terrorists for their efforts to “plan and execute attacks in Afghanistan,” including providing “logistical support” in order to advance Iran’s interests in the region. The Treasury Department has stated that these designations “[underscore] Tehran’s use of terrorism and intelligence operations as tools of influence against the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”
Iran’s support for the Taliban was at times short-sighted. For example, the governor of Helmand Province accused the IRGC in 2017 of giving the Taliban weapons to attack Afghanistan’s water infrastructure so that Iran could receive a larger portion of water from the Helmand River. While this was self-serving in the immediate term, such tactics served to weaken the Afghan government and ultimately undermined Afghanistan’s longer-term stability.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned additional individuals who spearheaded cooperation between the Taliban and Tehran. They included Mohammad Ebrahim Owhadi, a Quds Force operative, who, according to the U.S. government, provided the Taliban Shadow Governor of Herat Province “with military and financial assistance” in exchange for Taliban forces launching attacks against the Afghan government, and Esma’il Razavi, who ran a training camp for Taliban forces in Birjand, Iran, which, according to the U.S. government, “provided training, intelligence, and weapons to Taliban forces in Farah, Ghor, Badhis, and Helmand Provinces.” News reports indicate that Iran directly supported the Taliban offensive against Farah Province in May 2018.
Brigadier-General Esmail Qaani became the head of the IRGC Quds Force, following the death of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Qaani has deep contacts and experience in Afghanistan—dating back to the 1980s. After Soleimani’s demise, Iranian media began circulating unconfirmed reports that high-ranking Central Intelligence Agency officials perished in a plane crash in Taliban-controlled territory of a Bombardier E-11A electronic surveillance plane, and that one of those officials was involved in the death of Soleimani. Days later, the U.S. government announced only two U.S. Air Force pilots were killed in the incident, and there was no indication of hostile action in the downing of the jet. There has been speculation that the circulation of this story was part of an Iranian propaganda campaign. Such allegations also come on the heels of an increasingly close relationship between Tehran and the Taliban, with Iranian media repeatedly interviewing its officials.
Days after the plane crash, the head of U.S. Central Command warned of a “worrisome trend” in intelligence pointing to an uptick of Iran’s malign behavior in Afghanistan. This could be evidence of the new Quds Force commander seeking to deploy his existing network inside Afghanistan against U.S. forces.
On February 29, 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha that envisioned a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for assurances from the Taliban that the group would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The agreement was meant to pave the way for negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government on a power sharing agreement that would shape Afghanistan’s future.
After the agreement was reached, Iran continued to play a destabilizing double game in Afghanistan, seeking to ensure that it would retain influence in the country regardless of the outcome of the peace process. On the one hand, Iran sought to ingratiate itself with the Afghan government and encouraged various stakeholder factions from across the political spectrum in the government to form a joint committee to ensure a unified front in future talks with the Taliban. Iran even offered to play a mediation role in future talks as well between the government and the Taliban. In July 2020, Iran announced that it had formulated a "Comprehensive Document of Strategic Cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan" whose fundamental principles are "non-interference in each other's affairs," "non-aggression," and "non-use of each other's territory to attack and invade other countries."
At the same time, though, Iran continued to maintain contact with the Taliban to retain leverage over the Afghan government and peace process. Moreover, Iran evidently worked to sabotage the peace process by backing more radical elements and splinter groups from the Taliban who oppose negotiations and wish to keep fighting the central government and U.S. military presence. This reality was underscored by an August 2020 CNN report that U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that Iran had provided bounty payments to the Haqqani Network, a terrorist offshoot of the Taliban, for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in recent years. The report found that Iran had paid bounties for six Haqqani Network attacks in 2019 alone, including a major suicide bombing at Bagram Air Base in December 2019 that killed two civilians and wounded over 70 people, including four U.S. service personnel. The U.S. ultimately refrained from retaliation for the attack in order to preserve the peace process with the Taliban, but Iran’s role in financing attacks targeting the U.S. shows the potential for Tehran to play spoiler through its ties to the Taliban.
Iran, which has been hard hit by sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, sought to avoid pushing the envelope too hard in terms of proxy confrontation with the U.S., instead pursuing a strategy of strategic patience in the hopes that the U.S. would withdraw on its own accord. At the same time, by retaining its influence over radical Taliban elements, Iran ensured that it would be able to marshal such forces to reengage in hostilities against the U.S. at a time of its choosing should the U.S. have vacillated on leaving Afghanistan. By retaining influence with both the Taliban and its most radical elements, Tehran further sought to ensure that it would not face hostilities from Afghanistan in the event of a Taliban takeover.
In July 2021, after years of playing arsonist in Afghanistan, Iran tried to take on the unlikely role of firefighter, hosting a round of peace negotiations that brought together the Afghan government and the Taliban. The talks signaled that with the U.S. departing from the scene, Tehran would be a major power broker going forward in Afghanistan. Chairing the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hailed the defeat of U.S. forces and called for a political solution to the escalating hostilities between the Afghan government and the resurgent Taliban.
Iran’s diplomatic overtures were too little too late, however. The last-ditch attempt to revive the stalled intra-Afghan peace process rapidly fizzled for many interconnected reasons. The Trump administration effectively sidelined the Afghan government by bypassing it and entering a bilateral agreement directly with the Taliban in February 2020, signaling that the government would not be a major stakeholder in shaping the country's future trajectory. Further, the Trump administration telegraphed its absolute determination to withdraw from Afghanistan, securing only vague promises from the Taliban to govern more inclusively and prevent the formation of terrorist safe-havens. The U.S. did not attach any conditions to its withdrawal based on progress on the peace process or suitable power sharing arrangements, removing any incentive for the Taliban to negotiate in good faith or make concessions.
Reading the tea leaves, the Taliban opted to wait out the clock on U.S. withdrawal, correctly convinced that its takeover of Afghanistan was a fait accompli. The Taliban, therefore, dragged its feet on entering negotiations and became bolder on the ground, heavily rearming and reclaiming territory at a rapid clip in the months after the Doha agreement. This confluence of factors—the Taliban’s growing strength, the U.S.’s desire to check out, and the Afghan government’s increasingly apparent weakness—had a demoralizing effect on the country’s military and law enforcement forces, contributing to their unwillingness to fight back against the Taliban’s rapid retaking of two-thirds of Afghan territory, including the seat of government in Kabul, in August 2021.
Iranian officials have been cautiously optimistic in the preceding months about the return to power of the Taliban, clinging to hope that today’s Taliban is a different beast from the 1998 perpetrator of the Mazar-i-Sharif massacre. The marriage of convenience between Iran and the Taliban to repel the U.S. has won Iran some influence with the group that it hopes will endure even after the departure of their common foe. Faced with the challenge of governing Afghanistan’s disparate ethnic, sectarian, and tribal factions and seeking to avoid again becoming an internationally isolated pariah, the Taliban has sought in recent months to portray itself as a nationalistic, as opposed to strictly Pashtun, force, capable of inclusive governance. As such, it has refrained from persecuting Shi’a Hazaras, going so far as to appoint a Hazara cleric as a northern district governor.
In the early following the Taliban’s declaration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Iran reached out to the Taliban with an olive branch. Newly inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi issued a statement hailing the U.S. military defeat in which he declared, "Iran backs efforts to restore stability in Afghanistan and, as a neighboring and brother nation, Iran invites all groups in Afghanistan to reach a national agreement." By invoking “all groups,” Raisi was signaling Tehran’s willingness to work with the Taliban.
When the Taliban was the major proximate threat on Iran’s doorstep, Tehran aligned with its primary adversary, the U.S., to remove it from power. Iran evinced a similar pragmatic streak when it feared military encirclement by the U.S., cooperating with its former foe, the Taliban, to expel the U.S. Iran’s strategy of hedging by supporting the Afghan government and multiple opposition factions, including the Taliban, appears to have paid off in the short-term, but the long-term prognosis is far from ideal for Tehran. While Iran only played a minor supporting role in the Taliban’s resurgence, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—Iran’s core objective in Afghanistan—marks a major victory for Iran’s low-investment proxy warfare strategy. As the Taliban finds its footing, it is not likely to instigate hostilities with Iran. Over time, however, old enmities will resurface, especially as drugs, terrorism, and refugees spill over into Iran as a byproduct of restoring the Taliban rule.
At the border of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan provinces and Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, in May 2023, Taliban and Iranian forces exchanged fire amid a dispute over water rights. The dispute centers around the Helmand River, which empties into the Helmand swamps on the border with Iran. Iran claims rights to the river, which it depends on for irrigation in the Sistan and Baluchestan province. It has asserted that the Taliban have violated a 1973 agreement that guarantees Iran’s access. Iran alleges that the Taliban is allowing a mere four percent of the agreed amount and has rejected the Taliban’s claim that the reduced flows are due to a lack of rain and drought.
Given that Iran’s ecological problems, including water shortages, are becoming more acute, the Taliban could have the leverage to extract better deals in negotiations over oil, gas, and electricity. Some observers even believe that the Taliban could barter water privileges in exchange for these and other commodities from Iran, one of Afghanistan’s largest trading partners.
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