Iran and the Taliban: Sensing converging interests

By M. K. Bhadrakumar

It is a moot point whether Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar took the initiative to depute a high-level delegation to travel to Tehran, or whether the visit that began on Sunday was at the initiative of the Iranian government.

The Taliban claim the latter is the case. Indeed, the Iranian media made no effort to keep the presence of the Taliban in Tehran under wraps. On the contrary, they “broke” the story.

But the salience is that the Taliban delegation wouldn’t have gone on such a mission without the prior knowledge and/or concurrence of Pakistan. Which transforms the bilateral event – Taliban say their intention is to “revitalize” ties with Iran – into a development of significance in regional politics.

Pakistan’s Minister of States and Frontier Affairs Abdul Qadir Baloch also happened to be visiting Tehran early this week. According to Iranian media, Baloch’s talks in Tehran focused on the need for Iran-Pakistan “mutual cooperation in the campaign against terrorism.”

His Iranian interlocutor, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, was quoted as saying, “Both countries believe that security issues in the region should be dealt with by the regional countries and we should seriously confront terrorism, drug trafficking and fight against the outlaws.”

Clearly, the activities of the terrorist group Jundullah based in the Af-Pak region would have been uppermost on Fazli’s mind. As recently as in early April, eight Iranian border guards were killed in a terrorist attack in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan.

The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif who visited Pakistan following the terrorist strike in April had highlighted border security in his talks in Islamabad and made the unusual gesture of calling on Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif at the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Baloch’s current visit to Tehran could be a follow-up.

At the ground level, Taliban make a useful interlocutor for Iranian security agencies who keep track of the Jundullah in the fastness of Afghanistan. The Jundullah is known to have kept ties with the “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan.

Iran’s relations with the Taliban have been tense over the years since they attacked the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997 and killed several Iranian diplomats. However, today the circumstances have dramatically changed. New factors come into play.

First, Iran and the Taliban are finding themselves more or less on the same page (although for very different reasons) as regards their hostility toward the Islamic State (IS). Ideologically, IS subscribes to Salafi Tukfirism, which is an extreme form of Sunni Wahhabism (state religion in Saudi Arabia), while the Taliban are rooted in Deobandism.

Taliban would regard the IS as an existential threat. The fact of the matter is that the IS casts a spell on some Taliban factions, especially among Pakistani Taliban, and there have been recent cases of defection to the IS by Taliban commanders – Sayed Emarati and Maulavi Najib in the southeastern Logar and Wardak provinces and Maulavi Qahar in Kunar province.

A variety of factors – criminality, avarice, political differences, etc. – prompt disgruntled Taliban elements to flock to the IS and such defection might even be sponsored extra-regional powers interested in undercutting Mullah Omar down to size.

What complicates matters for Mullah Omar would be that unlike al-Qaeda, which had notionally pledged allegiance and entered into a pragmatic relationship with him, IS expects him and his followers to be abjectly subservient.

In a report recently, US government-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty featured a lengthy analysis entitled “Afghan Taliban Scrambling With the Rise of Islamic State.” To quote from the report,

“The hard-line (Taliban) insurgent movement sees losing its fighters and commanders to IS as a strategic threat to its very survival in the long term. The massive IS financial resources and appeal of its ascendency make many Afghan Taliban fighters vulnerable to recruitment.

“In addition, after fighting the Afghan and international forces for 13 years, the Afghan Taliban are at a crossroads over whether to make peace or continue fighting. Some Taliban insiders say agreeing to a peace settlement will cause fractions within the Taliban ranks. Those willing to continue the fight because of ideology or war-profiteering would eventually join IS.”

It is entirely conceivable that a point may come when Mullah Omar would have difficulty to assert his dominance over other Afghan and trans-national militant groups operating in Af-Pak region. In fact, this could already be happening. Under the rubric of Taliban, various militant groups and “foreign fighters” seem to be spearheading the current offensive in the northern province of Kunduz.

Kabul says 12,000 troops have been deployed in the Kunduz frontline, but the foreign fighters and allied groups calling themselves “Taliban” are holding their position even after fortnight-long fighting in the Imam Sahib district on the shores of the Panj River on the Afghan-Tajikistan border, and are bent on breaking through to Central Asia.

The alarm bells are ringing in Moscow and the Central Asian capitals and contingents drawn from the Collective Security Treaty Organization began exercises in Tajikistan last week involving more than 2,500 troops and 20 combat aircraft.

Suffice it to say, if a thin line separated the war in Afghanistan from the geopolitics of the region, that line has today got further blurred, what with the ascendancy of the IS. The AfPak region has had a strange history since the eighties of Islamist groups acting as the tools of outside powers.

The point is, for a variety of reasons, Iran would have reason to rethink its approach to the (Afghan) Taliban at some point.

From the Taliban perspective, Tehran’s uncompromising opposition to the IS – and its interpretation that the IS is a creation of Saudi Arabia – becomes a point of great interest. Interestingly, Taliban have condemned the death sentence given by the Egyptian authorities to the deposed president Mohammed Morsi, a stance that would annoy Riyadh.

Thus, it is entirely conceivable that in the overall situation, Iran would develop a dialogue with the Taliban, which would only help to harmonize its overall approach with Pakistan and China’s. Significantly, a Taliban delegation hopes to pay a visit to China shortly.

Islamabad would encourage the development of such ties as they mesh with Pakistan’s regional strategies too.

First and foremost, it isolates India further and would probably help smother the Indian proposal to build a new transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia via the Iranian port of Chabahar.

An Indian presence in Chabahar would be anathema to Pakistan because of the port’s proximity to Gwadar, which is only 80 miles way to the east, where Pakistan is building a major naval base in collaboration with China.

Indeed, Iranians themselves would be careful not to tread on Pakistani sensitivities by allowing a big Indian presence at Chabahar at a juncture when Islamabad’s refusal, in deference to Iran’s concerns, to accede to the Saudi request (made at the level of King Salman) to participate in the military campaign in Yemen would merit a reciprocal gesture by Tehran.

Secondly, Pakistan hopes to push through a gas pipeline from Iran with Chinese participation. Iran is interested in extending the pipeline to China as well. As things stand, there is a good possibility of the gas pipeline project becoming a major regional segment of China’s “Belt and Road Initiatives.”

Enter Taliban. It is against this complex regional backdrop that a rapprochement between the Taliban and Iran, promoted by Pakistan, is taking place. Put differently, it could be seen as yet another sign of a re-alignment in regional politics, involving Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. A point that cannot be lost sight of here is that the United States stands excluded from it.

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