The Taliban's meeting last month with high-ranking Iranian officials in Tehran is seen by some experts as an effort by the Iranian regime to increase its leverage in negotiations with the Biden administration and maintain influence in Afghan politics.
Iran hosted a Taliban delegation, led by its deputy leader, Mullah Baradar, for a week, saying it was “part of Tehran’s policy to reach out to Afghan parties in the Afghan peace process.”
Iran has developed closer relations with the insurgent group in recent years.
“Iran has a major incentive” in cultivating ties with the Taliban, said Kamran Bokhari, director of Analytical Development at the Center for Global Policy, adding that Iran is looking to increase its leverage in negotiations with the new U.S. administration.
“Four years of [the President Donald] Trump [administration] has really put them under a lot of pressure. They are coming to the table with the Biden administration from a position of relative weakness, so that means they need to gain leverage,” said Bokhari.
He added that to increase its leverage, Iran is trying to exploit the situation in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is facing problems and looking for an exit.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said that he is willing to lift the sanctions on Iran if Tehran cuts uranium enrichment to the level agreed to in the 2015 international treaty, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Several U.S. media outlets reported that the new U.S. administration is working to address not only Iran’s nuclear and missile programs but also its regional activities.
Iran has said that it will comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action once the U.S. lifts sanctions, and it has rejected talks on broader security issues.
Trump withdrew from the treaty in 2018, charging that it failed to stop Iran’s missile program and its influence in the region.
The U.S. and Afghan officials have accused Iran of providing the Taliban with money, weapons and explosives, a claim Iran has rejected.
Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told VOA that the Iranian regime has been meeting with the Taliban for some years, but they have become more public.
“What they have done this time [is] to do it very publicly, in recognition of the fact that the Taliban is now internationally recognized as a player,” Vatanka said.
While Iranian officials have said “this is a very different Taliban [group] from the 1990s,” Vatanka said Tehran has yet to convince the Iranian public that it's dealing with a “much more sophisticated” group than 20 years ago.
During the civil war in Afghanistan, in the 1990s, the Shiite regime in Iran was a staunch enemy of the Sunni extremist Taliban, particularly after the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar Sharif in 1998. Iran sponsored the Afghan forces fighting against the Taliban, and it supported the new political setup after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Vatanka said that the Iranians do not want to be left behind as other regional and international powers are developing relations with the Taliban.
“So, the Iranians do not want to be left out of this conversation,” he added.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have increased their trips to regional countries. In addition to Iran, their delegations visited Pakistan, Russia and Turkmenistan to seek support for the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, signed in February 2020.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement said the U.S. would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by May 1 only if the Taliban met the conditions of cutting ties with al-Qaida, reaching an agreement on power sharing with the Afghan government and reducing violence in Afghanistan.
The new U.S. administration has said that it is reviewing the U.S.-Taliban agreement to see whether the Taliban have met the conditions stipulated in the agreement. The Taliban, however, said that they expect the new U.S. administration to honor Trump’s Afghan commitments.
The Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for the increased level of violence in the country and stalled intra-Afghan talks.
No progress has been reported in the second round of the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that started on January 5 in Doha.
Considering the Taliban as “part of the reality” in Afghanistan, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Taliban delegation that Iran is ready to mediate in the stalled peace talks.
Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a global security research group, said countries in the region are preparing for the U.S. pullout.
“The U.S. is going to withdraw and they are preparing for what would happen next,” he said.
Clarke added that by cultivating closer ties with the Taliban, the “Iranian regime is looking for different ways to exert their own influence and to have a greater say in the politics of Afghanistan.”
Iran has been a key player in the decadeslong conflict in Afghanistan. Iran shares a long border, about 920 kilometers, with Afghanistan. There are about 3 million Afghans in Iran.
After meeting the Taliban’s delegation, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, in a tweet on January 27 praised the Taliban leaders for being “determined” in their fight against the U.S.
Responding to Shamkhani’s tweet, Afghan Chief of General Staff General Mohammad Yasin Zia, referring to the surge in violence in recent months, said, “The Taliban [group] is fighting against the people of Afghanistan, not against [the] U.S.”
Kabul-based political analyst Najib Azad told VOA that Shamakhani’s remarks show that “there is no regional consensus about the Afghan peace process, and it is possible that it will sabotage the peace process.”
He added that the new U.S. administration should “pay serious attention” to the regional dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan.
VOA’s Afghanistan Service contributed to this report.