Afghanistan war

What are Iran’s Long-Term Objectives in Afghanistan?

The Taliban recently declared that it will implement a ten-day ceasefire with US soldiers, a reduction in violence with Afghan forces and discussions with Afghan government officials if it concludes a deal with US negotiators in Doha, according to Reuters

If a deal is reached, it could revive hopes for a long-term solution to the 18-year war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are renowned for their annual spring offensives and the next one is due to start in April. But the militant group’s willingness to progress with negotiations and reduce violence revives odds of the peace process moving forward before the spring offensive.

There is one nation that could thwart the US’ hopes of ending their 18-year conflict in the country; Iran. US military intelligence assessments dating back to 2010 reveal that the Quds Force, Iran’s elite paramilitary unit, has a track record of providing lethal arms and training to the Taliban. According to Military Times, the list includes MANPADS, or portable shoulder-fired-air defence systems.

Furthermore, the former head of Iran’s Quds Force branch in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, is set to be the top commander of the elite Iranian unit that could destabilise peace in the country. He has a record of overseeing numerous operations in both Afghanistan and Syria.

Newly emerged photos reported on by TRT World reveal that he met the Governor of Afghanistan’s Bamyan province, Muhammad Tahir Zahir, which shows that Soleimani’s successor has a special interest in directing Tehran’s influence towards the east.

A recent Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) press conference included the banners of the Fatemiyoun Division, an Iran-backed Afghan Shia group fighting in Syria, and the emblem for Liwa Zainebiyoun – a Shia Pakistani Iran proxy. The IRGC has trained and recruited from Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara population for use in its proxy forces across the region.

However, US intelligence reports suggest Tehran has a mixed record of disrupting Western forces. A 2012 US military intelligence assessment read that the Iranian Government is not interested in the Taliban returning to power due to a history of ideological differences, but they are using lethal aid as a balancing force to prevent the West from increasing its influence.

Since the peace process started last year, the Iranian Government’s contacts with the Taliban have increased. The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani stressed the need for “the active participation of regional countries” in the Afghan stabilisation and peace process. For Iran, the Taliban is a useful ally in preventing the spread of the anti-Shia militant group ISIS, and they worry that if the latter gains a foothold in Afghanistan, it could lead to the spread of anti-Shia sentiment across its border. 

It would work to Iran’s advantage if the post-withdrawal Afghan government is divided. Al Jazeera’s Maysam Behravesh refers to it as a ‘pragmatic balance’ that would increase Iran’s control over its eastern neighbour, preventing it from becoming a US zone of influence and an ISIS stronghold.

This will create a strategic nightmare for the Trump administration as it seeks to ratify a new deal with Iran. The 2015 Iran Deal failed to curb Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups and it is unlikely Donald Trump will want to see them support the Taliban, even if it meant defeating ISIS. But from the moment US troops begin to leave Afghanistan, there might be very little he can do about it in the short-term.

Iran may not want the Taliban to return to power, but they are useful to Tehran because they can act as a balancing force to stop both ISIS and the US from extending their power over Afghanistan. The Iranian Government is likely to have a substantial impact over post-war Afghanistan, and this represents a new crisis for Washington.