Iran and the Taliban: A Tactical Alliance?
Iran has had covert contacts with the Taliban, the most dangerous terror group in Afghanistan, for many years. But recently, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), went public with the relationship, claiming that contacts had been made with the aim of “curbing the security problems in Afghanistan.”
The announcement came as a surprise not because the public was unaware of Iran’s secret relations with the Taliban, but because Tehran has always tried to keep its ties to terror groups an “open secret” in an attempt to maintain plausible deniability. Why did Tehran decide to go public about the Taliban connection now?
A review of the relationship’s history may help to explain the mullahs’ thinking. Relations between Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. During the period of Taliban rule, Iran saw the group as a threat to its interests. The two sides almost came to a direct clash in September 1998, when Taliban forces kidnapped and killed nine Iranian diplomats and one journalist in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) vowed revenge and prepared to launch an all-out attack. But the crisis ended without a major clash, perhaps due to the fear that Islamabad would retaliate in support of the Taliban or that Afghanistan might become a quagmire for Iranian forces similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union in 1979-89.
The 2001 US-led military operation that led to the collapse of Taliban rule prompted the Iranian leadership to reconsider its original calculation and recalibrate its approach. It welcomed high-level Taliban figures who escaped to Iran (e.g., Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Naim Barich) and began extending support to Taliban fighters.
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