The Taliban took a trip to Iran this month, Iranian media revealed, for the second time since US-Taliban talks broke down. The delegation was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akund, the Taliban's lead negotiator. Baradar has led negotiations with the US in Qatar and peace discussions in Moscow this year, and has held discussions with Pakistan and other countries. The Iranian discussions included talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who held a call with Palestinian Islamic Jihad the same day, illustrating how Iran hopes it can leverage several fronts against the US and their allies.
Tasnim news reported the Taliban talks in Tehran and said it was the second since US-Taliban peace negotiations had broken down in September. Iran told Baradar that US troops needed to leave Afghanistan and that the new government in Kabul should be inclusive. In the 1990s, Iran had bad relations with the Taliban, which persecuted Shi'ites. Today, however, Tehran is willing to work with and even support the Taliban in order to remove the US from Iran's eastern flank.
Taliban-Iran discussions have gone on secretly and in the open for years. In August, there were concerns that Taliban contacts with Iran could sabotage the US administration's desire to withdraw from Afghanistan and end the war with a deal with the Taliban. Zarif said on September 8 that Iran was ready to work with the Taliban.
Afghanistan's government has been outraged at these talks, which tend to ignore Kabul. An Afghan official condemned Iran in January 2019. US President Donald Trump's initiative had seen US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad meet with the Taliban, and talks seemed to have been going well until September. But Trump pulled back at the last minute over concerns the US might be seen to be giving away too much. However, he seems to be open to a new round. Khalilzad was in Pakistan for talks again in October, and he then went to Kabul near the end of the month.
Baradar was born in 1968 and is one of the Taliban's co-founders. A fighter alongside Mullah Mohammad Omar, he sought negotiations between 2004 and 2009 until he was captured in Pakistan in 2010. He was released in 2018 and went to Qatar to begin negotiations with the Americans. He held discussions with the US in February and May 2019, and sought to end the stalemate that had clouded discussions in June.
When talks collapsed, Baradar and his team went to Moscow on September 13. There they met Zamir Kabulov, the Russian envoy, and talked about "recent developments regarding the peace process." On September 22, the Taliban team went to Beijing. There, Baradar warned of bloodshed in Afghanistan if talks did not continue with the US.
On October 3, the jet-set Taliban went to Pakistan to meet Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. They had also been in Iran, according to reports, although it wasn't clear which Taliban members had gone there. Pakistan, which once backed the Taliban and has preferred religious extremist groups, was happy to meet their old friends. The overall picture is that the Taliban appear to be winning diplomatically. They have opened doors in Russia, China, Pakistan and Qatar, and Iran is supporting them. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even blamed Iran for an attack in Afghanistan that happened on May 31.
Iran wants to have a say in Afghan politics and hopes to use the Taliban to evict the US, just as Iran wants to evict the US from Iraq as well. Towards that end, it is working closely with the Taliban, and the meeting this week was evidence of that. Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban, said that these were detailed discussions in Tehran.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.