The Islamic Republic of Iran is about to hand over control of Afghanistan’s Embassy in Tehran to the Taliban. The move shows that whatever enmity Iran’s Shiite regime had toward the Sunni sectarian extremists of the Taliban is today subordinate to both regimes’ hatred of the United States and the liberal international order.
A quarter-century ago, Iran and the Taliban were enemies. I saw this firsthand in 1997, when I made my first visit to Afghanistan. I crossed from Uzbekistan to visit Mazar-i-Sharif, then a northern city under the control of ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. The country was divided. Even as they feigned willingness to negotiate a broad-based government, the Taliban had seized Kabul and imposed a reign of terror and purge. By 1997, the Pakistan-backed militant group controlled perhaps 70% of the country.
I stayed at Dostum’s guest house. One day, a number of Iranians came for lunch. The visitors were from the nearby Iranian consulate. True to the Islamic Republic’s pattern, they were members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the intelligence services, not the regime’s powerless foreign ministry.
Within months, they were dead. The Taliban seldom win battles; they instead use momentum to convince opponents to defect or stand down. One day, I woke up to frantic activity. Gen. Malik Pahlawan, Dostum’s number two and commander of the neighboring province, had cut a deal with the Taliban to allow their free passage into Mazar in exchange for an agreement that he would replace Dostum. The Taliban took the city, and Indian diplomats evacuated me to Uzbekistan.
Taliban control of the area was brief. The Hazaras resisted and pushed the Taliban out of the city. Bolstered by Pakistani aid and intelligence, the Taliban returned to the city, sacked the Embassy and murdered the Iranians. The Iranian military deployed to the border, and Iranian politicians threatened revenge on the Taliban.
The September 11, 2001 terror attacks and subsequent U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban government rendered Iran’s stand-off with the group moot. The Iranian government looked at the new Afghan government as a buffer. Afghanistan was as a whole not pro-Iranian. But as it did in post-Saddam Iraq, the Iranian government was able to leverage enough influence through local proxies to feel secure.
U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad repeated mistakes made in the run-up to 9/11 by trusting Taliban sincerity. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei long argued that Iran would be better off with the United States out of Afghanistan, and as the Afghan order collapsed, Iranian strategists planned a new approach. By 2020, Iranian diplomats openly talked with the Taliban. Even as Iranian discrimination toward Afghanistan and Afghans caused tension, diplomats discussed a new phase in relations.
None of this should surprise. For both Tehran and the Taliban, anti-Americanism runs deep. As American forces fanned out across Afghanistan to search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, Iran offered senior al Qaeda leaders sanctuary. These included spokesman Sulayman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden’s son Saad, and top operative Sayf al-Adl, whom the United Nations and United States now believe to be al Qaeda’s top leader.
Herein lies the danger. The 9-11 Commission found that when bin Laden lived in Sudan prior to his move to Afghanistan, he received ample Iranian support in pursuit of his anti-American terrorism. In Owens et al. v. Republic of Sudan, a U.S. District Court found that “support from Iran and Hezbollah was critical to al Qaeda’s execution of the 1998 embassy bombings.”
Iranian officials deny Sayf al-Adl is in Iran. With warmer ties between Iran and the Taliban-led Afghanistan next door, that may not matter, as he can simply transit between the two countries. What is certain is that he has deep ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
By formalizing ties, the Iranian government is signaling itself to be more interested in a new Axis of Evil than in helping Afghans resist their Taliban oppressors.
Anti-Americanism blinds Khamenei, but he should not celebrate. Every other country that has sought to channel extremist Islamist groups for narrow policy interests has seen the attempt backfire — Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey have all paid the price.
It will be no different for Iran and its new Taliban ties. Ultimately, Iranians themselves will suffer.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).