Iran has increased its support for the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan by opening an office for the militant group in the eastern part of Iran. Moreover, the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly considering sending surface-to-air missiles to Afghanistan.
Iran may be seeking closer ties to the Taliban as a strategic move to frustrate the alliance of the United States, Western Europe and the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai, which the Taliban is fighting to overthrow.
Ben Farmer wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that Iran may also threaten to spark violence in Afghanistan in the event the U.S. and Israel carry out a military strike on its nuclear power facilities. (After all, dozens of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan are within easy reach of Iranian missiles).
Interestingly, Iran and the Taliban have watched each other warily for the past 15 years. As a fiercely Sunni Muslim movement, the Taliban regards Shia Muslims with extreme disdain and contempt (Iran is the world’s pre-eminent Shia state).
Indeed, when the Taliban seized the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998, Iran blamed the group for the killing of nine Iranian diplomats. That massacre heightened fears that Iran would launch an attack on the Taliban in retaliation.
Now, more than a decade later, Iran appears to see the Taliban as a strategic ally in a changed global landscape.
"Iran is willing to put aside ideology and put aside deeply held religious values for their ultimate goal: accelerating the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan," a Western diplomat told the Wall Street Journal.
Similarly, Kate Clark, senior analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network, a think tank in Kabul, told National Public Radio: “There shouldn't be good relations between Taliban and the Iranians. The Taliban are militant Sunnis. The Iranian government is militant Shia, but there is a shared interest in enmity with the Americans.”
Over the past few years, reports have filtered out that the Taliban were receiving Iran-made military equipment. However, it is unclear if Iran will continue to provide them with more weapons, since such a provocation might lead to a direct confrontation with the U.S.
In addition, whatever support the Taliban currently enjoys in the Sunni-dominated Middle East would be seriously jeopardized if they developed closer relations with Shia Iran.
On the other side of the map, Pakistan, another Sunni Muslim state, has provided enormous aid to the Taliban over the years (openly and secretly). They, too, would be alarmed by any Iranian strategic designs on Afghanistan.
However, Iran has at least one advantage – hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees have fled to Iran since the war erupted in 2001. The Iranian envoy to Kabul, Abu Fazel Zohrawand, has already warned the Afghan government that these refugees would be deported if Karzai signed strategic partnership agreements with the U.S.
While that threat has passed, the status of Afghan migrants in Iran remains extremely insecure, suggesting they could be used as pawns by Tehran.
Nonetheless, Afghanistan (Taliban and otherwise), which desperately needs foreign investment to rebuild its economy and infrastructure after decades of war, may need Iranian help, regardless of the fallout.
Janan Mosazai, the spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told NPR that the Iranians have considered making large-scale investment in the construction, mining and agriculture sectors.
Clearly, Tehran wants to see a pro-Iran regime take hold in Afghanistan after the last of the NATO troops depart. What price they want to pay for such a result remains unknown.