Recent reports about Iran recruiting and training Taliban fighters are alarming, but they aren’t new. International forces in Afghanistan have seized shipments of Iranian weapons en route to Taliban groups before, once in 2007 and again in 2011. The shipments were big enough that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates went on the record about the “substantial” quantities of weapons that were unlikely to have crossed the border “without the knowledge of the Iranian government.” Later, David Petraeus, who was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, explained that, in sending weapons to the Taliban, Iranian officials weren’t likely hoping that the Sunni group would succeed. But, he said, “they don’t want us to succeed too easily either.”
That is still true today. For Iran, arming the Taliban is a way to counter U.S. influence and hedge against the growing threat of the Islamic State (also called ISIS).
At the moment, Tehran’s relations with Kabul are friendly. But the arrangement is primarily driven by security concerns. During Taliban rule, Iran supported a loose coalition of opposition militias, the erstwhile Northern Alliance, to the extent that some Revolutionary Guard commanders reportedly fought alongside them. Tehran was motivated by fears that the Taliban could potentially join forces with Jundallah, a Sunni militant group that operates inside Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, and support the Baluchi separatists. In 1998, Iran came to the brink of war with the Taliban after the group seized an Iranian consulate in northern Afghanistan and killed eight diplomats. Subsequently, in 2001, Tehran tacitly supported the U.S. invasion and toppling of the Taliban regime, and later even offered to help train Afghan security forces.
All the while, Iran might have been slipping the Taliban the odd weapon or two, but until 2010, it was openly opposed to any negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, in 2011, in a surprising shift in its long-held policy, Iran suddenly became supportive of peace talks and even offered to host meetings between the two parties in Tehran. What might have prompted Iran’s to flip at that moment was the appointment of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a powerful figure in the Northern Alliance, by former President Hamid Karzai to lead the Afghan High Peace Council, an entity tasked with facilitating talks with the Taliban. (Soon after his appointment, Rabbani was killed by the Taliban just after returning from a visit to Iran.) At the same time, Iran remains opposed to any direct talks between the Taliban and the United States. In 2013, after the Taliban opened its Qatar-based political office, the Iranian foreign ministry released a statement stating that “Iran believes that imposed negotiations masterminded by foreigners ignoring Afghanistan’s national interests and expediencies, will not yield any results.”
In 2010, reports surfaced that Iran has routinely provided bags of cash worth millions of dollars to buy loyalty in the government of former President Hamid Karzai.
These days, Iran’s engagement in Afghanistan includes $3 billion in annual bilateral trade; playing host to over one million Afghan refugees, from which Iran supposedly recruits fighters to dispatch to the Taliban; building and financing Shia religious centers; supporting Afghan media institutions; bankrolling the campaigns of its preferred candidates in elections; and building roads that connect the Afghan province of Herat to the Iranian border. In 2006, Afghanistan opened its largest Iran-sponsored Shia mosque, which also houses an Islamic university. In 2010, reports surfaced that Iran has routinely provided bags of cash worth millions of dollars to buy loyalty in the government of former President Hamid Karzai. And in 2013, Iran and Afghanistan signed a strategic cooperation agreement aimed (on the Iranian side) at offsetting U.S. influence. The pact included important economic and security measures, including boosting bilateral cooperation on transit, investment, commercial, and educational exchanges, expanding tourism, fighting terrorism and cross-border drug trafficking, sharing intelligence, and conducting joint military exercises. The agreement also included calls for a number of trilateral dialogues that exclude the Taliban’s historical patron, Pakistan. According to leaked U.S. government cables, Iran even routinely urges the Afghan parliament to back anti-U.S. policies and to raise anti-U.S. talking points during parliamentary sessions to stir tensions. In private, Iran acknowledges its measured financial support for certain Afghan political parties and leaders.