Reports of an official Taliban delegation’s clandestine this week raised eyebrows in both Kabul and Tehran: why would Iran, a Shia powerhouse involved in proxy wars with several Sunni states and sectarian groups in the Middle East, host a radical Sunni militant group on its soil?
The two erstwhile foes once came to the brink of a full-blown war against each other. However, when it comes to regional politicking the two have found much in common, including their fear of the spread of the influence in the region.
In 1998, Tehran deployed more than 70,000 forces along the Afghan border in a clear show of military might and threatened to invade and avenge the deaths of at least eight Iranian diplomats at the hands of Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif that year. Iranian generals predicted they would topple the Taliban regime within 24 hours, but the situation was defused when the United Nations interfered.
Then, when the US-led coalition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001 for harboring , the mastermind of attacks on 11 September 2001, Iran tacitly supported the operation.
However, more than a decade later, the two archrivals seem to be willing to coexist in the face of the growing threat posed by Isis. This dovetails with another shared goal: pushing the United States and its western allies out of Afghanistan.
While Tehran may not wish to see a return of a Taliban government on its eastern border, Iranian officials would not have a problem seeing the becoming part of the current western-backed Kabul administration through a much-awaited reconciliation.
It is for this reason that a delegation of Taliban, led by Mohammad Tayyab Agha, visited Iran on Monday and held talks with Iranian leaders. While officials in Tehran , Iranian newspapers and Taliban confirmed that the delegation was comprised of Taliban members from their political bureau in Qatar. A Taliban statement said that the delegation discussed a number of issues with Iranian officials, including the current situation in Afghanistan, regional and Islamic world issues, and the condition of Afghan refugees in Iran.
Monday’s visit was not the first time a Taliban delegation has visited Iran. They have already been to the country twice. Two years ago, they even attended an Islamic “vigilance” conference hosted by , according to state media reports.
Given the ideological differences between the two, this tepid friendship between Iran and the Taliban can be explained through regional rivalries and the emergence of Isis in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Isis leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has proclaimed himself as a Caliph of all Muslims, the same title that the one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, claimed nearly two decades ago.
Since last fall, the Taliban and a small number of militants have pledged their allegiance to al Baghdadi and raised black Isis flags during several armed skirmishes inside Afghanistan. Although the Taliban themselves repeatedly targeted civilians in the past, its spokesmen have condemned Isis for carrying out a deadly attack in eastern Afghanistan last month that left at least 35 people dead.
Although both groups rival one another in brutal attacks, the Taliban has called on Isis to “avoid extremism” in their war in the Middle East, a plea that al Baghdadi mocked. He reportedly called Mullah Omar “a fool and illiterate warlord” undeserving of a religious title.
Similarly, Iran has been fighting Isis forces through its militia groups in Iraq, Syria and . Tehran has reportedly sent more than 1,000 military advisers to Iraq, conducted airstrikes against Isis targets, and has spent more than $1b dollars in military aid to Iraq. The last thing Tehran wants is an Isis presence inside Afghanistan, from where the militants could attack targets inside Iran.
An Iran-Taliban alliance would not only serve as deterrence vis-à-vis Isis, it could also act as a bargaining chip in Tehran’s relations with the new government in Kabul, whose recent signals of support for did not go unnoticed. Supporting a fundamental Sunni group could also show that Tehran is not in an all-out-war against Sunni Muslims.
During the Taliban regime in the late 1990s, they were accused of ethnic cleansing by massacring Hazaras, a Shia minority ethnic group in Afghanistan, and of burning their villages as they advanced towards northern regions of the country. However, since its ouster, the Taliban has largely avoided sectarian and ethnic undertones in their narratives.
In fact, the Taliban have recently publicly condemned sectarian violence against Shia. When five civilians were reportedly kidnapped and killed in a central region of the country on 17 April, the local officials blamed the Taliban for the killing. However, a Taliban statement rejected the claim a day later, saying the Kabul administration and “certain media” were stoking sectarian violence. It said the Taliban militants on the ground had tried to find and rescue “our Hazara countrymen,” but they were killed before they succeeded.
Additionally, when 31 Hazara passengers were kidnapped on Kabul-Kandahar highway earlier this year (19 were released in an apparent prisoner swap later) the Taliban vehemently denied being behind the abduction. A Taliban statement last month even said that their militants diverted a convoy of Hazaras to protect them from crossfire between their fighters and government forces in the southern region.
Although it is difficult to prove that the recent spate of attacks against Hazaras and Shia are the work of Isis associates or Taliban splinter groups operating without the orders of their leadership, the Taliban’s public positions on the events are noteworthy.
In past months, the Taliban appears to be softening its formerly hostile position towards both Iran and Shia minorities.
When a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began airstrikes against the Houthis, an Iran-backed Shia group in Yemen, in late March, most Sunni Islamic states, including the , supported the operation. Hezi Islami, an insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar that has separately waged war against the Kabul administration, not only supported intervention, but showed readiness to send fighters in support of the Saudi-led operation. However, despite Saudi Arabia being one of the three countries that formally recognized the Taliban regime in 1990s, the Taliban has yet to declare its official position regarding the war in Yemen.
While a public show of cooperation is new for Iran and the Taliban, the two have covertly cooperated in the past. In 2007, Afghan border police officials in the western province of Herat showed this reporter confiscated land mines with clear Iranian trademarks intended for the Taliban in Afghanistan. They blamed Iran for training Taliban near the .
The same year, Nato officials accused Iran of supplying Taliban with armor-piercing bombs, or explosively formed projectiles, the same weapons that Iran was accused of providing to Iraqi insurgents fighting against US forces. Both sides denied the allegations.
The public rapprochements concerning proves one thing: when faced with a common enemy – in this case Isis – even archrivals like Iran and the Taliban, which ascribe to opposing radical ideologies, can put aside their sectarian differences for the sake of national and group interests.