The collapse of the Afghan government and ascendance of the Sunni extremist Taliban to power presents strategic challenges to Iran and will test the ability of the new Iranian administration to respond to a regional crisis. For now, Tehran is treading very carefully.

On 16 August, President Ebrahim Raisi stated that ‘the military defeat and withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan must be an opportunity to restore life, security, and lasting peace to the country.’ He asserted that ‘Iran will work towards stability, which is Afghanistan’s primary need today, and as a neighbour and brotherly country invites all groups to reach a national agreement.’

Despite this constructive tone, Tehran is stuck between two realities. On the one hand, the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan is welcomed by Iranian military and security forces in the belief that the American capacity to undermine Iranian regional interests has diminished.

On the other hand, the Taliban’s clear anti-Shi’a attitude is a source of concern for Iranian stakeholders. As such, Tehran has stated that it will recognise the Taliban only if it proves through deeds that it has shed its past.

The situation is so challenging that Raisi has asked the outgoing foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to function as special envoy on Afghanistan and report directly to him. Zarif was Iran’s chief representative at the Bonn conference that laid the foundation of the post-Taliban political structure in 2001 and is intimately familiar with Afghan political groups.

Background

Iran and Afghanistan share a 936 km border and have the Persian language, religion, history, and cultural heritage in common. In the past 40 years, Iran has housed millions of Afghan refugees, which has deepened bilateral relations and facilitated a growing volume of trade.

Trade between the two nations is marred, however, by sizeable smuggling activity, most significantly of drugs. In the past, Iran has attempted to make investments to reduce drug-related cross-border activity, but it has not managed to contain the damaging trade. Nonetheless, there is huge potential for Iranian exporters to do more in the Afghan market, and…. (continued).

  • Loss of a buffer
  • Afghan refugees
  • Changing political realities
  • Changing trade patterns
  • Khorasan province
  • The smuggling problem
  • Circumventing sanctions
  • Russia–Iran relations
  • Conclusions

This excerpt is taken from Iran Strategic Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Iran. Click here to receive a free sample copy.


Iran Strategic Focus – August 2021 

Commentary 

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