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Iran’s game in Afghanistan should worry the West

Saeid Golkar

Kasra Aarabi

Published: Updated:

For the past 42 years, Iran’s clerical regime has been unsuccessful in its attempts to expand its presence in Afghanistan, but the Taliban’s takeover promises to change this. While Tehran’s ambition to fill the vacuum will surprise few, it is the nature of its new Afghan strategy that should ring alarm bells in the West.

Afghanistan was the first nation Iran’s Shia extremists sought to export their 1979 Islamic Revolution to.

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Unlike its success in Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria, the Islamic Republic has struggled to create a permanent Afghan presence. The war-torn nation’s changing dynamics – from Soviet invasion to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and the US-led War on Terror – forced Tehran to adopt a reactive strategy towards Kabul. It first opposed the Taliban, then covertly supported it in the fight against US forces while simultaneously backing the post-2001 government.

This past year has seen a major strategic shift in Iran’s Afghan policy and stance towards the Taliban.

Six days into Biden’s presidency, Iran warmly hosted a senior Taliban delegation in Tehran to “exchange views” on US withdrawal – a move that raised many eyebrows.

Since then, Iran has been clear that it regards the Taliban as a partner in its fight against the West.

This is in spite of Tehran and the Taliban coming close to conflict in the 1990s after several Iranian diplomats were killed in Mazar-e Sharif. The new Iranian narrative has sought to conceal the Taliban’s role.

This whitewashing saw Ahmad Naderi, senior Iranian parliamentarian describing the Taliban as “one of the most authentic movements of the region,” warning that Iran should not “fall into the trap of misrepresenting the Taliban like American media.”

While it was assumed that the fall of Herat – close to Iran’s border – would trigger a negative response from Tehran, instead Iranian officials were among the first to refer to the Taliban as the “Islamic Emirate.” Since Kabul’s fall, new Iranian president and hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi has been clear: Iran welcomes the “defeat” of the US as an “opportunity.”

Taliban forces patrol near the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport, a day after U.S troops withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 31, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Taliban forces patrol near the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport, a day after U.S troops withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 31, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

The ideological element of this new perspective on the Taliban should not be underestimated. Unlike ISIS and al-Qaeda’s global ambitions, the localized nature of the “Islamic Emirate” does not constitute a challenge to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s self-proclaimed role as the leader of Islam and the Islamic ummah.

The Taliban partnership is not Iran’s only interest in Afghanistan. A product of its intervention in Syria, in 2014, the IRGC manufactured the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia – an Iranian proxy that has undergone rigors training and indoctrination. Numbering up to 20,000 Shia Afghans, Fatemiyoun defines its long-term aim of becoming the “Hezbollah of Afghanistan.”

In the near-term, the IRGC has made it clear that the Fatemiyoun will not be deployed, and dismissing speculation as a “Western-Zionist” conspiracy driven by the “West’s efforts to spark sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis.”

Instead, it will focus on exploiting the current situation as fertile territory to recruit and radicalize aggrieved Afghans, bolstering the militia. The Taliban’s takeover will flood Iran with thousands of refugees – what the IRGC sees as potential recruits.

Economic opportunities under a Taliban regime will shape Tehran’s near-term decision-making, with Afghanistan being used as a route to bust US sanctions. The Taliban has already cut tariffs on Iranian oil by 70 percent, a move that will bring two rogue economies closer together. Meanwhile the IRGC Quds Force will also profit from Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade that will flourish under the Taliban.

The West’s response to the Afghan crisis will impact the IRGC’s strategies elsewhere. It is clear to Tehran that the West has no appetite to stay in the Middle East. This, coupled with the European Union sending a senior representative to Raisi’s inauguration, despite Hezbollah strikes against Israel and an IRGC attack that killed two European citizens’ only days before, has convinced Tehran that the West is capitulating.

Iran's new President Ebrahim Raisi kisses the Quran during his swearing-in ceremony at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, August 5, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Iran's new President Ebrahim Raisi kisses the Quran during his swearing-in ceremony at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, August 5, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

An emboldened IRGC – the driving force behind Raisi’s administration – is now confident it can use escalation to achieve its goals against the West: from forcing a prompt US withdrawal from Iraq, to securing greater concessions in the form of sanctions relief at the nuclear talks in Vienna.

Iran’s long game in Afghanistan will only start to surface once the Islamic Republic is confident that Western forces have fully and permanently withdrawn from the region. It is at this point that the IRGC will look to secure its hard-power objectives through the Fatemiyoun.

A resurgent ISIS and attacks against Afghan Shia Hazara populations could provide IRGC with the perfect premise to justify the militia’s deployment “in defense of the Shias” similar to its “defense of holy shrines” narrative in Syria. Moreover, the appointment of Afghanistan expert Esmail Qaani as Soleimani’s successor and new IRGC Quds Force commander is seen by many as an indication that the IRGC intends to make Afghanistan its focal point.

Finally the al-Qaeda nexus cannot be ignored. Iran has become a haven for al-Qaeda’s leadership, exemplified by Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s (the group’s number two) assassination on Tehran’s streets. Al-Qaeda’s cell in Iran today, which, according to US intelligence, includes Saif al-Adel and Yasin al-Suri will be keen to re-establish a link with the group’s Afghan element.

This al-Qaeda link will feature as part of the Islamic Republic’s future relationship with the Taliban. While the Iranian clerical regime’s relationships with Sunni Islamist extremists is certainly no love affair, it is not a fling either.

Hostility against the West is the glue binding these Islamists together. If this alliance shifts from tactical to strategic, its repercussions could spill over to other continents – not least Sub-Saharan Africa, the new heart of global terrorism.
These considerations should shape the West’s stance towards Afghanistan and its policy towards Iran.

The IRGC will advance the clerical regime’s ideological and strategic objectives, regardless of whether the US re-enters the 2015 nuclear agreement. But, the question is whether it will do so with or without sanctions relief – estimated to be as much as $90 billion.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.