Iran is feeling the heat coming from Kabul. Divisions among political camps, contradictory statements, anti-Taliban protests, confusion and anxiety all underline official statements coming from Tehran, signaling that the regime has not yet made up its mind about where it sits with the Taliban running Afghanistan.
No matter what happens, the Taliban is not good for the Iranian regime. Although Tehran has welcomed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, it faces a distressing situation. The main concern is security, but the economy is also a worry, one that will force the regime to compromise.
The best-case scenario was expressed by Iran’s former foreign Minister, Mahammad Javad Zarif, when he stressed his country’s desire to see an Islamic participatory government – similar to the Lebanese “National Unity Government” that was formed after Hezbollah forced itself on Lebanon’s political scene in 2008.
With a participatory government, Tehran can increase its influence through Shia and Persian groups in Afghanistan. Iran has played this game very well in the region, with success in Lebanon. A gradual and determined approach to make inroads into the political system through political alliances will eventually bring power and protection to its militias.
Iran already has political allies and military groups in Afghanistan that it can leverage.
The Fatemiyoun is one. Formed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the beginning of the war in Syria in 2012, it has almost 15,000 fighters. Iran could use the Fatemiyoun and other factions to infiltrate the political scene in Afghanistan.
The militia has already called for the establishment of a participatory Islamic government in the country. Including the militia itself in the government is close to impossible so Tehran will urge the Taliban to eventually accept an approach that will include Shia figures and allies. This would safeguard Iran’s security and economic interests, for the moment.
Last week, two days after the Taliban announced the formation of the new Afghan government, which was dominated by its old guard without any Shia representation, Zarif condemned in a tweet the Taliban for what he called “a horrifying strategic mistake.”
“No one – domestic or alien – can rule the valiant people of Afghanistan by force. Three superpowers failed miserably. So will any other claimant to coercive authority,” he said in the same tweet. “Time to engage and include before tides change again.”
In a tweet a day earlier, Iran’s security chief Ali Shamkhani also expressed concern over “ignoring the need for inclusive government,” and urged for dialogue aimed at representing the different ethnic and social groups in Afghanistan.
Despite this unfortunate twist, Tehran will continue rapprochement in order to avoid immediate conflict. When it passes this crossroad, its approach will probably become more aggressive, especially as they see the US withdrawing militarily and diplomatically from the region. The regime already feels emboldened by this new reality and with the shift in US foreign policy and priorities.
However, this approach is riddled with many challenges. Last year, Iranian exports to Afghanistan were worth at least $2.3 billion, but it has been reported that trade between the two countries has stopped since the Taliban took over.
This will also affect Iran’s other economic interests, such as gasoline exports, water agreements, and cross-border drug smuggling. Iran’s economic interests will suffer greatly as security and stability deteriorate.
If the Taliban were disinclined to follow Iran’s wish for inclusivity, and Iran’s economic interests are affected by Afghanistan's new government Tehran will follow a different strategy. For example, the Fatimyoun militia could be deployed, for intelligence, political and potentially military confrontation.
With a similar strategy employed in Iraq, Iran supports Shia militias and allies, and eventually enters into confrontation with opponents with the objective of garnering power and hegemony.
Pursuing this method to tackle the Taliban will mean a major distraction for Iran, and one that requires resources, focus and bandwidth. With Iran’s current regional fatigue and economic crisis, the prospect of another proxy war is problematic for a country already weak and with depleted resources. Iran will try to avoid conflict.
Tehran will accept the non-inclusive new government in Kabul because it has no option, but will continue to reach out via intermediaries in Qatar, Russia and China. No one has perfected strategic patience that can compare with Iran, regardless if it causes internal political and economic turmoil.
If Iran’s history of political and military operations in the region is indicative, it will try to vigorously gain more influence in Afghanistan, through local and international allies, but it will do so while play-acting diplomacy and goodwill. In any case, Afghanistan is a challenge Tehran needs to deal with, and in the best-case scenario, it will be exhausting.