Fatemeh Aman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. She has written on Iranian, Afghan, and broader Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. Aman has worked as a journalist, analyst, and previously as an Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow. She has advised the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations on Iranian regional policies. Aman is fluent in Persian/Dari and German. Diwan interviewed her in August to ask how Iran views the developing situation in Afghanistan.
Michael Young: There have been suggestions that Iran views the Taliban victory in Afghanistan as a threat. Is this true, and if so in what ways might the situation constitute a threat?
Fatemeh Aman: There are many unknowns about the new generation of the Taliban that has just seized power in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership includes veterans of the 1990s Taliban government as well as much younger figures. The structure of the group is not transparent and is filled with ambiguities. This is, I think, a source of concern for everybody, not just Iran.
In Iran’s view, one of the worst-case scenarios has always been for the Islamic State group, which in Afghanistan calls itself the Islamic State-Khorasan or IS-K, to gain power. This would not only threaten Iran’s investments in Afghanistan but would also put Iran’s eastern borders seriously at risk. Iran may have concluded in 2015, with the emergence of IS-K, that the government of Afghanistan was not strong enough to defeat that threat. This may have prompted Tehran to strengthen its ties with the Taliban as well as make efforts to bring the Taliban and Afghan government together for peace negotiations.
An absolute Taliban government without a power-sharing mechanism has never been in line with Iran’s national interests. The Taliban are multifactional and Iran has tried to increase its influence within the group by getting closer to certain factions, but it is still suspicious of the Taliban as a whole. Essentially, a coalition government with Taliban participation would have been a good outcome for Iran. A government ruled just by the Taliban has many unknown aspects and could increase the influence of Iran’s Arab rivals in Afghanistan, fuel the civil war in the country, and lead to the growth of other militias.
Iran, China, and Russia benefited from the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the U.S. military’s confrontation with the militant groups there, even as they blamed the U.S. presence for the conflict in the country. The United States is now ending its presence and the security vacuum resulting from the troop withdrawal could easily be filled by militant groups and foreign terrorist forces. Interestingly, all these regional players now call the U.S. withdrawal “irresponsible.”
MY: Some Gulf states would like to use Afghanistan as a pressure point against Iran, in the same way that Iran has used the situation in Yemen against them. Is this in any way possible, and if so how?
FA: In my opinion, Afghanistan could be Iran’s Achilles heel. The security of Iran’s eastern borders is such a priority for Tehran that many Iranian reconstruction projects in Afghanistan were conducted in the provinces bordering Iran rather than in areas with a predominantly Shia population.
The only way to make Afghanistan look like Yemen is to create a civil war inside Afghanistan, and even that would not look like Yemen. There are other differences. Afghanistan’s central government has never been a puppet of, or affiliated with, Iran. Moreover, in a hypothetical Afghan civil war, Iran could not directly enter the war or use its air force in the way Saudi Arabia did in Yemen. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which was able to build a coalition to fight in Yemen, it is not possible for Iran to build a coalition to enter the Afghan war.
It should also be noted that the geographies of Yemen and Afghanistan are very different. Afghanistan is located near two of the world’s most militarily powerful countries, Russia and China, and neither wants a civil war in its neighborhood.
Currently, the region is saturated with conflicts, and an Afghan civil war would not be confined to Afghanistan’s borders—it would inevitably involve Pakistan and Central Asia, in addition to Iran.
MY: Do you anticipate that Iran’s new concern on its eastern border will affect its behavior and that of its allies in the Arab world?
FA: Iran has established several new military bases along its eastern border and is closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. In addition, with the increased turmoil in Afghanistan, Tehran’s concerns about terrorist operations inside Iran have increased.
Iran has generally viewed its religious minorities with suspicion and has sometimes treated them as a “fifth column.” Should the turmoil in Afghanistan increase and a potential Afghan civil war spill over into Iran, Iranian leaders may exhibit greater paranoia in their dealings with the country’s Sunni minority. Iran’s Arab friends probably can’t help Iran much with Afghanistan.
MY: Iran has used allied militias to advance its agenda in places such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. While the Taliban appear to control all of Afghanistan, will Iran try to resort to such an approach in the country, perhaps using the Hazara Fatemiyoun militia it had mobilized to fight in Syria?
FA: The Hazaras of Afghanistan are by no means Iranian proxies. Hazaras, especially Hazara youth, do not support the concept of Wilayat al-Faquih—or guardianship of the Islamic jurist—which is Iran’s governing ideology.
Unfortunately, the creation of the Fatemiyoun militia has fueled religious and ethnic divisions in Afghanistan. It should also be noted that a large number of the people Iran recruited into the militia did not necessarily fight in Syria based on their religious convictions, but for material gain. In other words, for a large part of these forces there is little zeal to fight on Iran’s behalf.
If there is a civil war in Afghanistan, then different groups are likely to participate in the war, and different countries will sponsor and arm certain groups. In that case, if the Fatemiyoun choose to fight in their own country, they would be doing so for their own reasons and should not necessarily be considered Iranian proxies.
MY: Is Afghanistan likely to be a new regional version of Syria, in which Iran will have to contend with other countries having a stake in what happens there? If so, what is its strategy likely to be?
FA: Afghanistan’s importance to Iran includes border security, shared transboundary waters, and the issue of drug trafficking. Iran is the main route for drugs smuggled from Afghanistan to Europe. Protecting Afghan Shia has never been a priority for Iran in the same way that saving the Syrian regime was.
Afghanistan has a lesson to teach other countries, namely that a government whose existence depends on the presence of foreign forces can easily collapse when those forces leave. This is something that the Russians, with their presence in Syria, and the Iranians, with their presence in Iraq and Syria, will have to take into consideration.