A delegation of the terrorist organization Taliban, headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy political head of the organization and its political bureau chief in Qatar, visited Iran at the end of January 2021. The meeting took place following the Iranian foreign minister’s invitation to “exchange opinions” about the peace agreement signed by Baradar on behalf of the Taliban and the Trump administration on February 20, 2020, and on regional and bilateral issues. The Afghan Foreign Ministry said that the Iranian government had informed it of the visit. Senior Iranian officials and media outlets in the country stressed that the visit was an important part of Iran’s foreign policy to develop channels of talks with the various factions in Afghanistan involved in the country’s peace process.
Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban Political Bureau in Qatar, tweeted on January 26, 2021, that the visit dealt with relations between Iran and Afghanistan, the Afghan refugee situation in Iran, and the current political and security situation in Afghanistan and the region. In early January, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban resumed their talks in Qatar in the shadow of continued violence in the country, but the talks are progressing slowly due to the great suspicion that characterizes their relations and the relationship to the peace agreement signed between the Taliban and the United States. It is also not clear yet what the Biden administration’s position will be on the peace agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban. Afghanistan’s hawkish sides are focusing on ways of distributing the country’s political centers of power in a bid to end the country’s political-security crisis.
Iranian Security Official Urges the Taliban to Continue Killing American Soldiers
The Taliban delegation met on January 27, 2021, with Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), who criticized the American presence in the region, saying that “Washington wants to continue the bloodshed between the Afghan factions and not to resolve the crisis. Its whole purpose is to create an impasse in the talks of the various factions in Afghanistan.” He called for the integration of all factions in the country’s peace talks, saying that Afghanistan’s security in the provinces bordering Iran was also Iran’s security and that the Taliban’s cooperation was necessary to combat the Islamic State organization. He laid out to Mullah Ghani the weak points in the agreement signed with the Trump administration and stated, “You cannot trust the United States; Iran will continue fighting every American mercenary in the region.” In effect, Shamkhani incited the Taliban to shed the blood of American soldiers by praising the determination of the Taliban fighters to continue the fight against the United States. He even tweeted, “Those who have suffered 13 years and endured torture at Guantanamo are in no hurry to give up the fight against the U.S.”2
For his part, al Ghani promised to cooperate in securing the common border,3 as well as the issue of Afghan refugees in Iran, and the free movement of businessmen. He blamed the United States for violating their signed agreement, without any details: “We cannot trust the United States, and we will fight every group that contains its mercenaries.”
The Taliban delegation’s visit to Iran took place in the shadow of Foreign Minister Zarif’s interview with Afghanistan’s TOLO news television station where he said, “According to the definition of the Iranian government, the Taliban is designated as a terrorist organization and had not been removed from Iran’s list.” Despite this position, on January 31, Zarif discussed with Baradar the situation in Afghanistan, the reconciliation talks between the Taliban factions in Qatar, and regional stability. Zarif also said that the United States is not a fair mediator4 in the Afghanistan peace talks: “We support a broad Islamic government in Afghanistan that will include all ethnic groups and religious minorities and take into account the constitutional structure and institutions operating in the country.” (Zarif: a broad government that will also represent the religious minorities.)
In this spirit, the conservative newspaper Keyhan wrote on February 1, 2021, in the midst of Iran’s hosting the Taliban delegation, “All peace channels lead to Tehran,” and the fact that Iran, once a bitter rival of the Taliban, meets with its leaders and even proposes to mediate the crisis and chaos caused by the U.S. occupation in ground-breaking. The newspaper also extensively cited Western media reports that the U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan would not meet the withdrawal target set for May and the Biden administration’s intention to re-examine the agreement in light of the Taliban not complying with its commitments.5
The Taliban delegation, headed by Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar, also visited Tehran in November 2019 and met with the foreign minister. At the time, it was reported that the delegation also met with Gen. Esmail Ghaani, the replacement of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, who has extensive experience in operations in the eastern border region of Iran – Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In recent years, there have been rallies and demonstrations in Afghanistan where many protested “the cooperation between Shi’ite Iran and the Taliban.”
Signaling the Biden Administration
The timing of the Taliban delegation’s visit to Tehran has special significance. It takes place two weeks after the second round of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which began in Doha about a week after President Biden’s inauguration. It appears that in hosting the Taliban delegation in Tehran, Iran signals to the incoming U.S. administration that it intends to play a major role in formulating the security arrangements and peace treaties in Afghanistan and the latter’s willingness to improve relations with the United States. It should be emphasized that Iran continues to see the American military presence in its backyard – in Iraq, Afghanistan (a border 945 km long), and the Persian Gulf states. Iran’s propaganda apparatuses call for the United States’ expulsion from the area, and terrorist organizations operating under its auspices and funding are attacking American forces stationed in the area.
For now, the Biden administration has decided to extend the tenure of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special representative for the talks with the Taliban, who maintains good relations with the Iranian regime, especially on the issue of the Taliban. Although Khalilzad stated on several occasions that Iran plays a destructive and negative role in the Afghan peace talks, the Biden administration has made it clear that it “intends to review” the agreement. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also sent a message in that vein to his Afghani counterpart on January 22, 2021. A White House release quoted Sullivan saying that his team wants to examine whether the Taliban meets its obligations to sever ties with terrorist organizations, reduce violence, and conduct productive conversations with the government and other stakeholders in the country.
Secretary of State Blinken spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on January 28, telling him that the United States supported resolving the crisis in Afghanistan but was re-examining the agreement signed by the Trump administration and especially the Taliban’s commitments to end the violence. Blinken assured the Afghan president that the United States will continue in the international efforts to find a solution to the crisis.6
Meanwhile, another Taliban delegation visited Russia and other countries in the region on January 29, 2021. Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, one of the Taliban negotiators, said during his meetings in Russia that the purpose of these visits was to harness different countries to put pressure on the Biden administration to meet U.S. commitments to withdraw from Afghanistan according to the timetable set out in the agreement: “The countries we have visited border on Afghanistan, and we want them to be involved in the issue,”7 Staniksai said. “We share their concerns and ask for their support for the Afghan peace process.”8
It should be noted that Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javid Zarif, also met in Russia with his counterpart Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss various issues, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen in the context of Iran-Russia strategic cooperation. Zarif and Lavrov met in Moscow in parallel to the Taliban delegation visit.9
Trump’s Peace Agreement Is Being Tested
The roots of the inter-Afghan dialogue trace back to the peace agreement signed on February 29, 2020, between the Trump administration and the Taliban to put an end to 20 years of war in Afghanistan.11 According to the agreement, the United States and NATO forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by May 21, 2021. Under the Trump administration, the forces have already been dramatically reduced, with pressure from the Trump administration pushing for a full withdrawal. The current American presence in the country has been decreased from13,000 to 2,500. This is in exchange for assurances from the Taliban to negotiate a long-term ceasefire agreement, including severing ties with Al-Qaeda and partnering with the Kabul government. However, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby clarified on January 28, 2021, that the administration is reviewing the withdrawal terms, its scope, and dates, and especially the Taliban’s commitments to end violence and disavow terrorism that it has “so far shown no real willingness to do so.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government was not a party to the signing of the agreement between the Taliban and the United States He criticized it over the concessions made to terrorists because they strengthen the terrorists and increase their determination to continue violence instead of reducing it. Hamadullah Mohib, the president’s national security advisor, reiterated on January 24, 2021, that the Taliban was a terrorist organization interested in continuing the violence this summer. Nevertheless, contacts with the Biden administration are expected to continue, and there has already been a conversation between Mohib and national security adviser Sullivan. Mohammad Naeem, the top Taliban official in Qatar, urged the Biden administration this week to implement the agreement signed by the Trump administration that would, in his view, end the country’s “foreign occupation” and bloodshed.
Iran’s Ongoing Ties with Al-Qaeda
Another issue related to the continued American military presence in Afghanistan is the activities of Al-Qaeda. In early January, the U.S. Treasury Department ruled that Al-Qaeda was increasing its strength in its position within Afghanistan and continues its operations under the auspices of the Taliban through various aid networks in the field of guidance and financing. Haqqani network officials also examined the possibility of establishing a special unit in the company funded by Al-Qaeda. This is alongside terrorist organizations Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) working against Pakistan and seeking refuge in Afghanistan.12
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated prior to his leaving his post that Al-Qaeda had established a new base in Iran and that Iran provided shelter and support to the terrorist organization. It should be mentioned that Abu Mohammad al-Masri (Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah), who was behind the Al-Qaeda attacks against two American embassies in Tanzania and Kenia, was eliminated on August 7, 2020, by unknown persons in an upscale suburb of Tehran. Al-Masri, who was wanted by the FBI, had lived in Tehran since 2015 after he and four other Al-Qaeda members were released by the Iranian government in exchange for an Iranian diplomat. According to U.S. intelligence, other elements of Al-Qaeda are located in Iranian territory, including Saif al-Adel (“the Sword of Justice”), who apparently replaced al-Masri as number two in Al-Qaeda; Sultan Yusuf Hasan; and Mohamed Abbatay (Al-Rahman al-Maghrebi).
Pompeo said he was not surprised by al-Masri’s presence in Tehran because the organization to which he belonged found refuge in Iran. He said that Iran allows the organization to operate freely, raise funds, establish the organization’s cells around the world, and carry out other actions. The organization launched in the past from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but today Tehran is the organization’s “operational headquarters.”
The Iranian Foreign Minister decried Pompeo’s remarks as “war-mongering lies.” Biden administration officials speculated that the Trump administration’s actions against Iran late in his presidency were intended to damage the possibility of negotiating with Iran around the U.S. return to the nuclear agreement.
Possibility of Action against the United States
In the past year and after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran has been examining new arenas to take action against the United States. The Islamic Republic sees Afghanistan as a possible and appropriate arena, especially given the rich experience of the Quds Force commander, Esmail Ghaani, in Afghanistan and his covert ties to various elements in Afghanistan. U.S. military intelligence and the CIA reported in August 2020 that Iran was funding the Taliban organization to encourage attacks against U.S. and Western troops in the country.
Al-Qaeda has leadership scattered on different continents. However, even if the central Al-Qaeda headquarters is not in Tehran, secret ties between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Al-Qaeda have continued in recent years. Despite the deep ideological religious divides between the two sides, their ties continue in a kind of marriage of convenience that enables Iran to maneuver and assist the organization in harming American soldiers in Afghanistan. The relationship with Al-Qaeda also provides the possibility of using the organization for special operations outside Iran on the day it decides. At the same time, Iran is very suspicious and closely monitors the Al-Qaeda movements and operations and if necessary, curbs its activities and releases the brakes to advance its state-run terrorist activities.
An agreement between the United States and Taliban on February 20, 2020, may have increased pressure on Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghan territory, and they now see Iran as a more convenient haven. This coincided with ties between the two sides on Afghan territory, and this may also be due to various positions within the Taliban leadership regarding the treatment of Al-Qaeda. In any case, the future of the peace agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, which is now “under study” and reexamination by the Biden administration, is of great importance to the future of Al-Qaeda’s activities in the country as well as its ties and presence in Iran.
Besides hosting the Taliban delegation for the second time in a year, Iran appears to continue to operate its agents in Afghanistan, keeping its ties with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, in an attempt to put pressure on the Biden administration to recognize it as an important factor in determining the political and security future of its neighbor to the east. As part of this, Iran has raised the possibility of integrating the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which consists of Shi’ite Afghans from Iran’s refugees, in maintaining stability in Afghanistan (see below).
Iran has an open historical account with and searing memory of the Taliban. On August 8, 1998, the Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate in the Afghan city Mazar Sharif and killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian reporter, an incident that brought Iran to the brink of military intervention in Afghanistan. Iran also produced a film showing the events in Mazar Sharif (2015).13 Iran restrained itself from retaliating but from time to time acted against elements in the Taliban while at the same time establishing contacts with them after the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. It should be noted that during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Iran allowed the United States to use its airspace to attack Afghanistan to come to account with the Sunni Taliban, which had been growing stronger in the country and posed a threat to its border. Later, as the war in Afghanistan stretched on, the Iranians saw changing geostrategic circumstances in the region and the American presence on its border. It chose to shelter Afghan refugees, including Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza; the number two in Al-Qaeda, Mohammad al-Masri who was eliminated in Tehran; and even several terrorist groups in Afghanistan working against American forces.
Iran’s foreign minister Zarif told an interviewer on the Afghan TOLO news in December 2020 that “the Taliban has committed many terrorist acts,”14 and “we have not removed the Taliban [from our list of] terrorist groups.” He continued, “We have not forgiven or forgotten” this murder [of Iranian diplomats], but added that given the “present reality,” Iran now sees the Taliban organization “as part of the solution” to Afghanistan’s problems.15 Iran hosts more than three million Afghan citizens (of whom about one million are refugees) on its soil. Some have married Iranians.
The Afghan refugees’ population in Iran and their economic plight are used by Iranian intelligence and Revolutionary Guards officials to recruit them to various Shi’ite militias as well as to operate as agents in Afghan territory. Sometimes recruiters threaten to expel an individual’s family from Iran if they refuse.
During the Arab Spring, Iran organized a militia of Afghan Shiites living in Iran under the name Fatemiyoun Brigade, which Iran dispatched to various areas of Syria to prop up the besieged President Assad. In his Tolo interview, Foreign Minister Zarif admitted that 2,000 Afghans fought in Syria, but that number is considered much too low. Many found their death there. The organization is listed on the U.S. terrorism list.
The Kabul government and the Taliban organization protested the brigade’s formation, saying they did not take kindly to Iran using Afghan citizens as “cannon fodder” to advance its goals in the region. Human Rights Watch accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of recruiting Afghan immigrant children as young as 14 for the Fatemiyoun forces.16
Iran has proposed integrating the Afghan militia into the fight against the Islamic State in Afghanistan itself, utilizing the experience it has gained in Syria. Iran’s foreign minister said, “the highly trained force can assist the Afghan government in its war on the Islamic State.” But, such a step can only encourage a sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in Afghanistan (who make up about 10-15 percent in Afghanistan). Several attacks against Afghan Shiites have been carried out in recent months. The Afghan government rejected the offer on the grounds that it would only increase instability in the country.
The U.S. Institute for Peace claims that 50,000 Afghans were deployed to Syria over a four-year period, and the institute warned that the returning Fatemiyoun forces presented a danger. “The existence of the Fatemiyoun, whose numbers rival some estimates of Afghan Taliban strength, has raised concerns over the emergence of a generation of Shia Afghan youth motivated by their sectarian identity and armed with military experience in the Middle East,” the report warned.17
Ultimately, Afghanistan constitutes a complex challenge for Iran. It encapsulates both risks and prospects manipulated very carefully, by Iran both diplomatically and security-wise, due to the long common border between the two states and Iran’s policy of keeping active conflicts and enemies away from its borders.
As part of this strategy, Iran is striving to remove American forces from Afghanistan, and until then, has been encouraging attacks against them and even supplying weapons to various groups for this purpose. This is part of its overall strategy to “a region free of American forces” and to weaken the image of the United States in the region. For the United States, Afghanistan is one of the bases for intelligence-gathering on the Iranian Quds Force in particular and the Revolutionary Guards and Iran in general.
At this time, Iran cynically exploits the presence of Afghan refugees in its territory and uses them as part of its policy of exercising force through terrorism in various areas of the Middle West (especially Syria) and even attempts to return some of the Fatemiyoun fighters to gain political-religious-security influence in Afghanistan, The proposal has been rejected by the Afghan government, but it is clear that given the unprotected borders, dozens of Shiite fighters trained in Iran and who fought in Syria will find their way back to Afghanistan.
However, the issue of Afghanistan, which is apparently far from a solution, is due to disagreements in Afghanistan and the United States over the withdrawal of troops and commitments in the agreement with the Trump administration. Iran will use the Afghan issue as an additional card in the expected nuclear negotiations with the United States. Iran will attempt to demonstrate its ability to influence (especially to negative outcomes) the Afghan arena as well as other regional issues (Iraq, Syria, Yemen) and to show that without cooperation with Iran, agreements cannot be reached in these areas. While Iran announced that it would seek to disassociate these issues from the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) issue, it is possible that given the U.S. administration’s willingness to return to the framework of the nuclear agreement (“JCPOA2” as defined by the Tehran Times), Iran will enjoy “free rein” in conducting the destabilizing regional policy it is waging.18
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2 https://twitter.com/alishamkhani_ir/status/1354375807175692288 ; https://twitter.com/alishamkhani_ir/status/1354381259879948290
6 https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-afghan-president-ghani/; https://tinyurl.com/TKBZRFtasnim3101