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Mapping Iran’s Policy Towards A Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan
Shivam Shekhawat
2023-04-20
Region : Central Asia, Middle East-North Africa, Iran,
Issue : Military Issues, Security, Terrorism,
On 26 February, the Islamic Republic of Iran joined a small but significant number of countries that allowed diplomats from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) to take charge of the embassy of Afghanistan in Tehran. This development was a subtle shift from Iran’s earlier insistence on not handing over its embassy to a regime it doesn’t recognise, reiterating its commitment towards an inclusive government with representatives from all communities.
The Iran-Afghanistan relationship has constantly wavered between phases of cooperation and contestation. Some issues such as the frequent border skirmishes, the constant flow of refugees into Iran from its eastern border with Afghanistan, and the dispute over the equitable sharing of water have persisted irrespective of who is in power in Kabul. But with the Taliban now at the helm of affairs, the perceived cross-border threat of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) for Iran and other security considerations may create opportunities for cooperation. Straitjacketed between geography and geopolitics, both sides attach importance to the ties considering some form of engagement is essential for securing their interests. But the incongruence between some competing interests has made cooperation difficult, having repercussions for the region.
Oscillating between cooperation and contestation
In the aftermath Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini outlined Iran’s approach towards the regime next door. According to him, Iran’s policy will be reciprocal, influenced by the degree of sensitivity shown by the Taliban towards their interests and priorities in the region. While this doesn’t eschew the need for a long-term strategy, it does signify the reservations Tehran has about trusting the Taliban completely. Iran , irrespective of the people in power, has always been wary of Afghanistan, but the changed international context and the charged internal environment have compounded the difficulties. Forming a coherent policy response has also magnified the domestic divisions within Iran, with some sections more receptive to the idea of engaging with the Taliban.
Bound together by geography and shared political, economic and civilisational ties, Iran and Afghanistan have had a historically significant but tumultuous bilateral relationship. Over the years, trade and economic cooperation have boomed, with two-way trade reaching US$1 billion as per the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce. For Tehran, trade with Kabul has been a means to transcend the crippling effects of the US sanctions, sporadically in place since 2005, and has helped support Iran’s ‘resistance economy’. The border regions are also deeply integrated, with Iranian rials being used in the Afghan border town of Zaranj and the ubiquitous presence of Iranian goods on supermarket shelves. But while trade has boomed, differences in other aspects have continued to fester.
Refugee population in Iran
From August 2021 till February 2023, officials from Tehran and Kabul have met around 67 times, mostly bilaterally. The purported agenda of these meetings is to seek a consensus on the issues plaguing the ties and to chart a middle ground. Of these ‘issues’, some have the potential to deteriorate the relationship further. Last year(March 2022- February 2023), nearly 445,403 refugees from Afghanistan took refuge in Iran. Tehran has historically hosted a large proportion of Afghan refugees, mainly from the Shia Hazara and Tajik communities with around 3.6 million refugees already present in the country. But while its refugee policy has been relatively inclusive, it has repatriated many refugees back to Afghanistan, sometimes voluntarily and often times through force.
This article originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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