The Wall Street Journal reports that the Taliban has opened an office in Zahedan, an Iranian city not far from the country’s tripoint border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. With a large population of ethnic Baluchis, Zahedan has long been a hub for separatist activity within Iran, leading many Iranians to disavow the city altogether.
Most Iranians associate Zahedan with narcotics trafficking, sectarianism, and lawlessness. On the surface, then, conditions appear perfect for a new Taliban office. Not surprisingly, however, Iran has denied these claims, as have other former Taliban officials.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban. Under Taliban rule, Hazara, Afghan Shia, and other Iranians living in Afghanistan were subject to discrimination and harassment. In 1998, the Taliban stormed an Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and killed ten diplomats.
Notwithstanding this history, Iran’s current policy toward Afghanistan suggests there may be some truth in the Wall Street Journal report. The Iranian approach to Afghanistan is burdened by historical animosity toward the Taliban, hostility toward any American footprint in the region, and a very serious interest in stability. In the realm of foreign policy, such competing interests usually lead to ostensibly contradictory pursuits. In October 2010, for example, President Karzai readily admitted that an aide to Afghan president Hamid Karzai had received bags of cash from the Iranian government.
On the surface, Iranian foreign policy toward Afghanistan may seem reckless and rash. Why support the Taliban after working with the United States to remove it from power? Why is Iran permitting the flow of weapons to insurgents, but sending bags of money to President Karzai?
The reality is far more complex, and not as complicated or contradictory as it may initially seem. Iranian strategists believe the United States is an impediment to a stable Afghanistan. Although Iran has undoubtedly taken steps to hasten America’s departure from the country, that does not suggest it is willing to bring chaos to Afghanistan.
While there are reports that Revolutionary Guard affiliates have been working with Afghan insurgents, we have yet to see any hard evidence of the Supreme Leader’s complicity. More probably, Iran is maintaining constructive relationships with as many key players as possible, believing it is better positioned than the United States to facilitate reconciliation between Karzai and the Taliban.
While most in the West will likely react with trepidation to the Wall Street Journal report, there is, in reality, not too much to worry about. If a Taliban office has indeed been established in Iran, it should not be assumed that the office is an official one, that its purpose is to destabilize Afghanistan, that Iran now has access to Taliban equities it could not connect with before, or that Iran wishes to control Afghanistan.
The move, if true, may simply be an attempt by Iran to make itself relevant to the peace process, just as it did in 2001 (and just as the United States has actively tried to do since Obama’s inauguration).
In other words, instead of jumping to the worst conclusions, it might be worthwhile to think a little deeper about what a Taliban office in Iran might mean – and what the Iranians may really be hoping to achieve.