Iran, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; Close Relations between Shiite and Sunni Fundamentalists: A Strategic Move or a Matter of Expediency?
By Rahmatullah Nabil
In this commentary, Rahmatullah Nabil, the former Head of the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan (2010-2015), discusses the relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The appointment of two prominent and seasoned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers with close ties to the Taliban as the new Ambassador and Deputy Ambassador of Iran in Afghanistan, and the handing over of the Afghan Embassy in Tehran to the Taliban, have been met with surprise, frustration and indignation by Afghan citizens and politicians who, under the spell of cultural, linguistic and religious affinities and sensibilities, used to think of the Islamic Republic of Iran as “a friend in need”, and whose feelings of affinity bordering on infatuation were corroborated by Iran’s cooperation with the Afghanistan’s resistance movement in the past. Inter-national relations, however, should be based on national interests in a specific temporal context, not on sentimental friendships and enmities.
Considering the current situation in the region and the standpoints of regional players, while keeping in mind their divergent views on matters of religion, the rapprochement between the two religious autocracies can only be understood in terms of their respective interests and the inevitable facts on the ground, namely the three-way hostilities between Iran/Taliban, the US and ISIS-K, each party’s ambitions regarding their sphere of influence, alternative alliances, the need for evading sanctions and the ongoing disputes regarding access to the waters of Hirmand.
Before having a closer look at each of the above-mentioned five elements, and in order to have a better understanding of the various factors at work behind this rapprochement, it is necessary to have a quick look at the history of relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, over the last two decades, after which we can move on to the current situation and the challenges facing the region today.
The History of Relations Over the Last 20 Years
In 1998 the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif was the scene of a bloody attack that resulted in the assassination of ten Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist. The rising tensions between Iran and the Taliban following these events prompted Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban at the time, to take a stance. In response to these events, Mullah Omar stated that Iran and the Taliban are “brothers in Islam” and tried to shift the spotlight onto the US as their common enemy. Not only did Mullah Omar’s statements fail to improve relations between Iran and the Taliban, but they actually incentivised the Islamic Republic to play a critical role in the arming and funding of forces fighting against the Taliban.
In the wake of 9/11 and the fall of the first Taliban regime, following the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and their allies, most members of the Taliban residing in the Western and Southwestern provinces of Afghanistan once again relocated to the refugee camps in Iran and joined their families there. It was reported that a number of Al-Qaeda commanders and members also escaped to Iran under the guise of Taliban refugees. Subsequently, a number of them were imprisoned in Iran or were put under surveillance.
Notwithstanding their disputes with the US, the Islamic Republic of Iran initially played a constructive role in Afghanistan. They felt at ease as their allies were appointed to critical positions in the cabinet of the newly established Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. But at the same time, Iran had become a safe haven for members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and their families.
In the following years, as the Taliban gradually increased their military activities in the provinces neighbouring Afghanistan, the Iranian government allowed them to establish unofficial headquarters in Zahedan and Mashhad that served as bases for recruiting combatants from among Afghan immigrants in the country. Iran saw this as a tactical opportunity to create some sort of counterbalance against the International Coalition in Iran’s backyard, i.e. Afghanistan. The Iranian regime even facilitated Taliban offensives against US military bases, such as Shindand Air Base, and several construction projects such as Salma Dam in Herat, Bakhsh-Abad Dam in Farah, and Kamal Khan Dam in Nimrouz.
In 2011 and 2012, the relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban entered a new phase. The Taliban sent a delegation to Tehran led by Syed Tayyib Agha, the former Head of the Political Bureau of the Taliban, requesting the establishment of an official headquarters in the capital. In that same year, the years-long armed conflict between the Shiite Turi and Bangash ethnicities and other Sunni groups in Kurram district and Parachinar in Pakistan was brought to an end with the intervention of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the IRGC acting through the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar. This development paved the way for the re-opening of the shortest transit route connecting Waziristan and Kurram Agency in Pakistan, and Paktia, Khost, Logar and Nangarhar in Afghanistan. With the re-opening of this strategic transit route, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network succeeded in amping up their offensives against the International Coalition and Afghan security forces in the above-mentioned provinces, as well as Kabul and Maidan Wardak.
Tensions between Iran and the US reached their peak during those years. The Quds Force no longer felt a need to hide their support of the Taliban. At the same time, the Afghan government’s efforts to create a balance in their foreign relations with Iran as a neighbouring country on the one hand, and the US as a strategic ally on the other, meant little to the Iranian regime. The Director of National Security presented the National Security Council and the President with undeniable well-documented evidence of the efforts of the Quds Force to arm the Taliban, their funding of the Taliban, and other hostile activities by the extraterritorial branch of the IRGC. But the policy of the Afghan government at the time was to avoid tensions with both a neighbour and an ally at all costs. They preferred to keep Iran’s interference in their internal affairs a secret and tried to resolve these issues through diplomatic channels. Due to their disputes with the US, the Islamic Republic of Iran ignored the efforts of the Afghan government. On one occasion, in a total breach of diplomatic protocols, Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad, the former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, told Hamid Karzai in a threatening tone: “Those of your fellow citizens who live near American military bases should evacuate their homes to be safe from possible Iranian strikes.” Some sources suggest it was the Islamic Republic of Iran that first laid the ground for establishing contact between Moscow and the leaders of the Taliban, eventually leading to the exchange of messages of good faith between Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the former leader of the Taliban, and the Russian government.
Intelligence gathered at the time suggest that the Quds Force had simultaneously created a corridor for smuggling drugs (heroin) across the border between Iran and Afghanistan. The profits of that deadly trade were used to fund the Taliban. Furthermore, the Quds Force used those profits to fund their proxy wars in the region, and later on, also for the establishment of the Fatimid Brigade (a.k.a the Fatemiyoun Division). Another measure for funding the Taliban the Islamic Republic of Iran used was to invite a number of Taliban leaders to have a share in Afghanistan’s oil exports.
After Osama bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan in 2011 and Ayman Al-Zawahiri became the leader of Al-Qaeda—a leader who was “in favour of” forging an alliance between the Shia and the Sunni against their common enemy—Al-Qaeda developed deeper relations with the IRGC. With the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the ensuing clash between the Al-Nusrah/Al-Qaeda Front and ISIS in Syria in 2014, members of Al-Qaeda came to increasingly rely on Iran for travelling between Syria and Waziristan (in Pakistan). It is reported that in 2015 five key members of Al-Qaeda were released from prison in Iran in exchange for the release of Nour-Ahmad Nikbakht, an Iranian diplomat who had been taken captive in Yemen. Three of them went to Syria. The other two, Saif al-Adl and Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, remained in Tehran. Al-Masri was ultimately assassinated in Tehran in 2020.
Following the signing of a security agreement between Afghanistan and the US, and with the increased activity of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of ISIS-K in the region, particularly in Helmand province under the leadership of Abdul Rauf Khadim in 2015, the relations between Iran and the Taliban entered a new phase. In 2015, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Taliban at the time, travelled to Tehran. Subsequently, the Taliban started visiting Iran more frequently and their offices in Tehran, Mashhad and Zahedan expanded their operations. Before long, the Taliban were routinely meeting with representatives of the Russian Intelligence services in Tehran. These developments and the ambitions of Mullah Akhtar Mansour were not welcomed by everyone in the region. Akhtar Mansour was assassinated in 2016 in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, not long after crossing the Iranian border. According to the ISI, he was killed in a US strike. But the assassination of Akhtar Mansour did little to damage the relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban.
In 2018 the US started negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on condition that the Taliban sever all ties with Al-Qaeda. With the start of the negotiations, members of Al-Qaeda were relocated from Waziristan to Iran, and from Iran to Syria, with an increased speed by Yahya Haqqani, one of the senior leaders of the Haqqani Network, in charge of their coordinating committee for foreign terrorists, who was operating with a Pakistani identity under the alias of Sajid Walad Mir Saeed Khan. These relocations continued until the conclusion of the Doha Agreement and the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021.
The Inevitable Facts behind the Rapprochement between the Islamic Republic, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: A Common Hatred for the US
The withdrawal of NATO and US forces from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban in 2021 were described by most political analysts, diplomats and US veterans as the second “embarrassing defeat” of the US after their failure in Iraq. Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran, in addition to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, undoubtedly believe they all have a claim to this victory. But over time, as the Taliban reneged on most of the commitments they had made to countries in the region and beyond in the course of the Doha negotiations, the optimism and the high hopes held by those countries gave way to disappointment, concern and uncertainty in the intelligence communities of the US and countries in the region. Most of the countries who had a stake in Afghanistan have since stated their efforts to counter any potential threats to their national interests coming from Afghanistan by all means.
For a long time, the US has been accusing Iran of supporting proxy groups fighting against the US and their allies in the region, including in Afghanistan. The US have cited this as the reason for the assassination of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in Pakistan after his departure from Iran, the assassination of Ghassem Soleimani in Baghdad, and the assassination of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, better known as Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, Al-Qaeda’s number two man in Iran.
Recently, the US and their allies published a list of the threatening activities and provocations of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Included on this list is Iran’s support for Russia in the war against Ukraine, the alleged presence of the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iran (although this was no secret and years ago intelligence experts suggested that Saif Al-Adl would succeed Ayman Al-Zawahiri as the leader of Al-Qaeda), Uranium enrichment up to 84% in Iran (which, along with a few other issues, created tensions between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran and is one of the subjects of their discussions), the close relations between Iran and the extremist leaders of the Taliban in Kandahar, and the potential role of Iran and Al-Qaeda in the radical decisions of Taliban leaders and the isolation of the Kabul circle of the participants of Doha negotiations who are in favour of improving relations with the international community and the US and even went so far as to help them find and kill Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Only time will tell whether the US will continue to see the activities of the Iranian regime as ‘potential’ threats that can be used to advance their policy of deterrence through maximum pressure or they will come to be seen as ‘actual’ threats and Iran will once again be treated as the driving force behind an “axis of evil” as George W. Bush put it years ago.
Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Iran-Taliban-Al-Qaeda Trio
“The enemy of my enemy, is my friend.” So goes the famous saying. And so we see the three incongruent sides of this trio coming together in a three-sided alliance against the US due to the challenges they face and their affiliations, mutual interests and complementary capabilities. The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently struggling with a host of difficult challenges: the threat of regime change posed by “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests both inside and outside the country; the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister in Israel, who is one of the harshest opponents of a nuclear Iran; the activities of ISIS-K in Afghanistan; crushing sanctions which have led the Iranian economy to the brink of destruction; the reluctance of Russia and China as allies of the Islamic Republic to stand in direct confrontation with the US on account of Iran; drought; the active presence of armed militias such as Jundallah, the Ansar Movement (a.k.a Harakat Ansar), Jaish ul-Adl, Ansar al-Furghan and the SSP (Sipah-e-Sahaba) in the vulnerable areas of Sistan & Balochistan, and the freedom-seeking movements of the Baloch people of Pakistan.
The Islamic Republic sees a golden opportunity in the rich quarries of Afghanistan, particularly the Uranium mines of Khanashin district in Helmand. On the other hand, evading sanctions, the re-opening in Afghanistan of Iranian banks with ties to the IRGC, the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups, the possibility of using Afghanistan as an alternative base in the case of regime change in the face of increasing domestic and international pressures, and changes in Iran’s access to the waters of Hirmand are all issues that have occupied the Islamic Republic of Iran in an Afghanistan that is ruled by the Taliban. At the same time, Iran is hosting the Taliban’s opponents, including certain Jihadi commanders, former Afghan security forces trained by NATO, the disciplined and experienced Fatimid Division and discontented leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, all of whom can be used as leverage against the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda sees the success of the Taliban as their own strategic success. With the coming to power of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their allies have been further motivated in their Jihad against the US. They now have access to a vast and impassable landscape, and state-of-the-art military equipment left behind by NATO, and they know they can rely on the riches of the quarries at their disposal, drug trade and digital currencies. Sources in the intelligence community suggest that after the assassination of Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Kabul, certain Taliban leaders in Kabul were suspected of having helped the US find Al-Zawahiri’s hiding place. The Kabul circle is also suspected of being increasingly inclined toward cooperation with the US. As a result of these suspicions, Al-Qaeda have come to play a stronger role in the radical decisions made by the Kandahar circle and they have driven the Kabul circle into isolation. A number of Taliban leaders in Kabul have publicly called into question the authority of the directives issued by the Taliban leadership in Kandahar. Between 1998 and 2001 during the first Taliban government, Al-Qaeda used this very same technique—an uncompromising Taliban versus Western powers—to develop stronger relations between Mullah Omar and Al-Qaeda.
Despite all these opportunities and possibilities, after long years of isolation, Al-Qaeda will need to expand their manoeuvrability across Afghanistan, Waziristan, Iran and Syria and extend their links with their subsidiaries and other affiliates, so that they can recruit more forces from among Islamic extremists and find a safe place for their leaders, before they can create a security challenge for the US and their allies.
The Taliban have no fond memories of the dealings between Pakistan and the US and the International Coalition in the fight against terrorism and the overthrowing of the first Taliban government. There are several factors that are responsible for the Taliban’s distrust of Pakistan: The killing and imprisonment of a number of their leaders in Pakistan; Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude toward the Taliban and playing favourites with certain circles in the Taliban; pressuring the Taliban to either reign in or give up on the TTP; the possibility of the TTP joining ISIS under these pressures and in the event of taking action against them; providing American forces with military bases from which they could conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan; restricting the Taliban’s safe hideouts in Waziristan following the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and other similar movements. The non-recognition of the Taliban and the disagreement between the expectations of Afghanistan’s neighbours and the international community and the Jihadi mentality of the Taliban is another major issue. The Taliban are well aware of the consequences of global opposition to their radical decisions. In order to survive maximum international pressures, sanctions and even a potential US invasion to overthrow the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban (especially with the likelihood of a reversal in US policies vis-a-vis their support for the Resistance after 2024 Presidential Elections), the Taliban have no choice but to keep an eye out for alternatives.
History shows that the coalition of divergent ideologies does not last for long. Considering the incongruence between Iran, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and their vulnerabilities, this alliance between “enemies of enemies” might work in the short term with recourse to the carrot-and-stick approach, but it seems unlikely that it will ever end up in a long-lasting strategic triad.