The era ushered in by 9/11 made theological terms like Sunni, Shiite, jihad, sharia, and Salafi household words, and birthed a nation of armchair experts on the intricacies of Islamic sectarianism and doctrine. Pretense to expertise is a privilege of living in a free country. Oddly, however, the U.S. government has adopted the same facile analysis of regional and religious dynamics in the Middle East and South Asia, viz. the trope that Shiite Iran is a natural enemy to the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan. This is, in short, rubbish.
The Taliban victory in Afghanistan is a gift to Iran, nothing less.
On its face, the Wikipedia version of Islam might seem to validate the whole “enemy of my enemy” trope. Doctrinally, orthodox Salafi Muslims like the Taliban believe that Shiism (and the majority of Iranians are Shiites) is apostasy. Sunnis, who make up the majority of Muslims, and model themselves nominally on the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad, don’t credit the Shiites, who believe that Muhammad designated his son-in-law Ali to succeed him. Then there are the Salafis—the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and others—purist Sunni who embrace the literal Quran. In short, they like the Shiites even less.
In a perfect world, Salafis would demand the Shiites embrace the true path or be eliminated along with other unbelievers. But this is not a perfect world, and both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists allow for both religious and political expediency in pursuit of a higher goal. In the West, this is called realpolitik. And both the Taliban and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran are masters of it.
The confusion began in the wake of 9/11, when Tehran proffered assistance to the United States in overthrowing the Taliban. Iran’s advocates in Washington envisioned a new dawn in which the United States would abandon the Sunnis critical to its Middle East policy for decades (namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Jordan) and align itself with the Shiites. And other than the inconvenient centrality of anti-Americanism to the Islamic revolution in Iran, the idea had legs. After all, there was little love lost between the Taliban and Iran even before the September 11 attacks, and Iran had supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in its resistance.
Motivated by fear of a U.S. invasion and shrewd realism, Tehran did indeed appear to side with the United States against the perpetrators of that terrible attack. (This despite the fact that, per the 9/11 Commission Report, Iran had helped funnel at least three of the hijackers into the United States.) But as the reality of U.S. occupation in Kabul dawned, Iranian leaders had second thoughts. And by 2003, with the U.S. firmly entrenched to Iran’s east in Afghanistan and to its west in Iraq—notwithstanding the gauzy hopes of credulous diplomats that an Iran-U.S. rapprochement was in the cards—the regime began hedging operations.
Within a few short years, despite ostensible support for the new U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was feeding weapons to the Taliban and other anti-government forces inside Afghanistan. (Coincidentally, the IRGC Afghanistan portfolio was held by then-IRGC Quds Force deputy—now leader—Esmail Qaani.) Indeed, during what Tehran’s allies describe as the potential breakthrough years of 2002-2003, Iran began providing an escape route for al-Qaeda members fleeing the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The Iran-al-Qaeda relationship is another we were told was implausible. Sunni terrorists and Shiite leaders cooperating? Never! But cooperate they did, not only in the 2000s, but even earlier in the 1990s when Osama bin Laden was still sheltering in Sudan. As al-Qaeda dispersed in the face of U.S. attacks, very senior leaders made their home in Tehran, including Osama bin Laden’s son and heir, Hamza bin Laden (later killed by the U.S.), senior al-Qaeda leader Saif al Adel, and Abu Muhammad al Masri, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 until he too was assassinated inside Iran. Iranian officials insisted that the al-Qaeda honchos were under house arrest, though there was little evidence to back up that claim. Others explained that Iran was only providing safe haven on the condition that al-Qaeda wouldn’t plan attacks from Iranian soil. But they did that too. (See Thomas Jocelyn’s Vital Interests newsletter on Iran and al-Qaeda here.)
At the end of the day, what underpins the Iranian relationship with the Taliban (as with al-Qaeda) is the central tenet of Iranian strategic policy overall: instability. While Tehran may have been pleased to aid the U.S. in ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it had no interest in seeing a stable, pro-American government to its east. And so, led by the IRGC, it returned to what Iranian strategists perceive as their sweet spot: playing both sides. The Taliban was licensed to open a political office in Iran. Senior Taliban leaders began occasional visits to Tehran to kiss the ring of the supreme leader. Meanwhile, the IRGC continued to support disgruntled Shiites inside Afghanistan. (Indeed, Iran’s support for those Shiites was such that by the time the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, Iran was well-placed enough in Afghanistan to reportedly recruit tens of thousands of Afghan Shiites to fight on behalf of their Syrian puppet Bashar al Assad.)
Nor was Iran’s support for the Taliban purely political. Tehran permitted Taliban training camps inside its borders and provided “light arms, rifled-propelled grenades (RPGs), and even military training for Taliban forces on Iranian soil.” Later stories made clear that the Iranian government was also paying Taliban salaries. And reporting last year revealed that Iran was paying the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
Naturally, there is room for some confusion about who’s on first in South Asia. The Taliban murdered ten Iranian diplomats (and a journalist) in 1998. In the aftermath of that attack, tens of thousands of Iranian troops massed on the Afghan-Iran border. So, does Iran support the Taliban? Yes and no. Does Iran arm the Taliban? Yes, sometimes. Does Iran like the Taliban? No. But it hates the United States of America more. And that is where the mullahs of Iran and the new rulers of the so-called Emirate of Afghanistan see eye to eye, 100 percent.