Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- At the end of the 1990s, Shiite Iran and the Sunni Taliban nearly went to war. However, the Iranians also pursued a strategy of supplying Taliban units with arms and cash as well as training Taliban fighters, using the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
- Iran later deployed the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division in Syria, which became the largest external militia involved in the fighting there.
- Both Iran and the Taliban were committed to seeing U.S. power in Afghanistan weakened. But now that the Americans are gone, does there remain a basis for Iranian-Afghan cooperation?
- Will Iran seek to add the demographic weight of Shiite communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan to its cause?
Just as the Taliban emerged as a political force in Afghanistan in 1994, it became clear very quickly that their relations with their western neighbor, Iran, were for the most part based on mutual hostility. They were each radical extremes of the Sunni-Shiite divide with their political systems claiming that the head of their movement served as the leader of all Muslims. The Sunni Taliban came from the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, which represented some 40 percent of the population. Shiite Iran was by far the larger state in terms of population with close to 83 million in 2019; Afghanistan, by contrast, had a population of only 38 million in 2019.
The potential for tensions between Iran and Afghanistan was considerable. In 1997, the Taliban fought against one of their greatest domestic rivals, the Hazaras, who were ethnic Shiites living in Afghanistan, but only constituted 10 to 15 percent of its population.1 During that period, many Afghan Shiites fled to Iran, where they lived in refugee camps.
The Taliban goal in those years was to ethnically cleanse northern Afghanistan of its Shiite population by giving them three choices: conversion to Sunni Islam, moving to Iran, or death. Women were taken as sex slaves. At the end of the 1990s, Iran and the Taliban nearly went to war. First, 70,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards with tanks and aircraft began an exercise along the Afghan-Iranian frontier. In October 1998, Iran mobilized 200,000 troops and began a series of exercises along the border as well.2 So why should there even be a question about the future relations between Iran and the Taliban?
The reason is that this was not the only model for Iranian-Taliban relations. The Iranians also pursued a strategy of supplying Taliban units with arms and cash as well as training Taliban fighters, using the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran was employing Shiite Afghans in Syria as well in order to advance Iranian interests in the Levant. They were used to promote Iran’s war against ISIS on Syrian territory. But they also could provide an important force multiplier in Syria for Iran in a future war against Israel.
An Iranian official disclosed in early 2017 that there were 18,000 Afghans fighting under the command of Iran’s Qud’s Force in Syria, in the Fatemiyoun Division. Some estimates of the size of the Fatemiyoun Division reached 20,000 or even 60,000. It was the largest single external militia fighting in Syria.3 There was also a smaller force of Pakistani Shiites fighting in Syria, known as the Liwa Zainebiyoun, or the Zainabiyoun Brigade. In 2019, Washington designated the Fatemiyoun as an international terrorist organization for the support it gave to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria.
So there were two possible courses of action for Iranian-Taliban relations: rivalry or cooperation. Both states were committed to seeing U.S. power in Afghanistan weakened. That joint interest should have pulled both countries into greater cooperation. But what will happen after the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan? Does there remain any basis for Iranian-Afghan cooperation against American power once it is gone? What is more likely is that Iran will resume its policy of expansionism towards Afghanistan that it has demonstrated towards the Middle East as a whole in recent years.
There were also historical factors. When the Persian Empire, when it was known as the Safavid Empire, officially made Shiism its state religion in the 16th century, its borders extended well beyond Iran’s present-day frontiers. In the east, the Safavid Empire stretched to what is today the Afghan city of Herat. It should come as no surprise that one of the main languages of Afghanistan, Dari, is a dialect of Farsi, the Persian language. Like Farsi, Dari uses the Arabic alphabet. Recovering lost Persian territories has been a theme of Iranian policy towards the Arab world and could well serve as a motive for the Iranians in their relations with their eastern neighbors, as well, especially Afghanistan.
During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Iran found itself isolated as it had to contend with the combined power of the Sunni Arab world as well as other states. Adding the demographic weight of Shiite communities in Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan could help Iran address this imbalance.
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1 Neamatollah Nojumi, The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Mass Mobilization, Civil War, and the Future of the Region (New York: Palgrave, 2002).
2 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
3 Ahmad Majdyar, “Top Afghan Offical: We Have Evidence Iran Provides Weapons to Taliban,” Middle East Institute, www.mei.edu. See also “Leaving Afghanistan,” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/leaving-afghanistan/, in which Najibullah Quraishi investigated how Afghanistan’s neighbors – particularly Iran, through its proxy militia, the Fatemiyoun – are looking to fill the void as America withdraws.