My Enemy’s Enemy: Iran’s Approach to the Re-emergence of the Taliban

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
My Enemy’s Enemy:
Iran’s Approach to the
Re-emergence of the
Parisa Abbasian1
Over the years, Iran’s approach to the Taliban has had ups and downs. Iran
welcomed the United States’ 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and worked with the
American forces to overthrow the Taliban. Nevertheless, it was not long before
Iran adopted an utterly opposite policy by compromising with the Taliban and
supplying it with political and military support. This article examines domestic and
regional factors contributing to this dramatic change in Iran’s behaviour toward
the Taliban. It provides an assessment of how Tehran’s threat perception of the
US military presence across its borders, the rise of the Islamic State in Khorasan
Province, the increasing Afghan drug trafficking, and the influx of refugees from
Afghanistan to Iranian territory have prompted Tehran to pursue a different
approach toward the Taliban. It also explains how Iran’s intention to sustain water
supply from Afghanistan’s rivers to the eastern provinces of Iran and resume
profitable trade with Afghanistan has acted as a catalyst in expanding Iran–Taliban
relations. This article argues that Iran sees the Taliban as an agent to weaken
the United States, prevent the spread of ISIS in Khorasan, and strengthen Iran’s
influence in Central Asia. The article concludes that although the Taliban’s rise to
power in Afghanistan poses challenges for Iran, the benefits it brings are such that
it prevents Tehran from relinquishing ties with the Taliban.
Iran–Taliban relations, the Islamic State Khorasan Province, Afghan–Iranian water
dispute, Afghanistan’s illicit drug trafficking, the Afghan refugee crisis
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(3) 493–512, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221130144
1 College of Arts and Social Sciences, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Western Australia, Australia
Corresponding author:
Parisa Abbasian, College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences, Murdoch University, 90 South
Street, Murdoch, Western Australia 6150, Australia.
494 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 9(3)
When President Joe Biden announced his intention to withdraw all US troops from
Afghanistan by August 2021, Iran stepped up contacts with the Taliban to fill the
diplomatic vacuum that was about to open in its eastern neighbour. In July 2021,
the former Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, met with the Taliban delegation to
discuss their intention toward Afghanistan. Later in January 2022, the new Iranian
foreign minister, Hussein Amir Abdullahian, held talks with a high-ranking Taliban
delegation in Tehran to address Afghan issues (Tehran Times, 2022; Wintour, 2021).
Tehran’s acknowledgement that it wanted to establish cordial ties with the Taliban
did not come as a surprise; after all, Iran was known to have covertly provided
the Taliban with weapons and military training and Tehran had even allowed the
Taliban to open liaison offices in Iran’s eastern provinces of Zahedan and Mashhad.
However, Tehran’s outreach towards the Taliban 2.0 regime in Afghanistan broke
with its past policy towards the Taliban 1.0 regime.
When the Taliban was formed in 1994 and came to power in 1996, Tehran
considered this a hostile development and the group an enemy of Iran. Iranian leaders
saw the emergence of a Sunni fundamentalist group across its eastern border as a
severe threat to Iranian national security and sought to confront the Taliban 1.0 regime.
Accordingly, the Islamic Republic began supporting the anti-Taliban groups, including
the Northern Alliance, and working with the United States to overthrow the new
Afghan government. While Iran had such a hostile attitude towards the first Taliban
regime, the question arises as to what factors have changed the Islamic Republic’s
relationship with the Taliban now from confrontation to cooperation.
In addressing this question, the author draws upon Maoz and Mor’s previous
studies (1996; 2002) of the circumstances under which states decide to support
Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs). In essence, Maoz and Mor have theorized
that states begin supporting NSAGs when they are dissatisfied with the status quo
but unable to confront their rivals directly. This inability or unwillingness to
engage in direct conflict leads states to support NSAGs to weaken their rivals and
achieve their strategic objectives. Applying this logic to Iran’s conciliatory
approach to Taliban 2.0, this study argues that the rapprochement between Tehran
and Taliban 2.0 stems from the Islamic Republic’s intention to eliminate imposed
threats against Iran’s security and maintain its interests in the Middle East and
Central Asia. Iranian leaders were particularly eager to see an end to the US
military presence in Afghanistan and calculated that the Taliban could serve Iran
by undermining the US/NATO military effort in Afghanistan. Iran could also
confront the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) forces in Afghanistan by
supporting the Taliban. The Taliban could also contribute to stabilizing Iran’s
eastern border by reducing drug trafficking and preventing Afghan refugees from
flooding into Iran. Finally, the Taliban could advance the interests of the Islamic
Republic by allowing the water of the Helmand and Harirud rivers to flow to
Iran’s eastern provinces and resuming economic cooperation with Tehran. The
significance of these considerations is so great that Tehran has continued to
strengthen its relations with the Taliban, despite the challenges it has faced since
the Taliban took control in Afghanistan (Moaz & Mor, 1996, 2002).

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