Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 9 Table of Contents
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September 2001 

Tehran and the Taliban
by A. William Samii

A. William Samii is a regional specialist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes the weekly newsletter Iran Report. Views in this article are his own.

Mohammad Khatami
Hours after hijacked American airliners destroyed the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon on September 11, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced on state television, "I condemn the terrorist operations of hijacking and attacking public places in American cities which have resulted in the death of a large number of defenseless American people." The main suspect in the attacks is the Al-Qa'ida terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who lives in neighboring Afghanistan as a guest of the ruling Taliban militia.

Four days later, Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen warned that "if neighboring countries or regional countries, particularly Islamic countries, gave a positive response to American demands for military bases, it would spark up extraordinary danger. Similarly, if any neighboring country gave territorial passage or airspace to the USA against our land, it would draw us into an imposed war." Although outside observers tended to assumed that Pakistan was the primary target of this warning, the Iranian government thought otherwise. Shortly afterwards, Tehran announced that it had sealed its 936-kilometer border with Afghanistan. An Iranian official described the deployment of security forces along the border.

These developments initially led to expectations of Iranian participation in an anti-terrorism coalition, which could, in turn, lead to some sort of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Contributing to such expectations was a September 18 report in Canada's National Post saying that Tehran sent a message to Washington, through Canadian intermediaries, saying that it would not oppose military strikes against the parties responsible for the attacks in the US. The next day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected the National Post report, and another Foreign Ministry official said that Tehran does not recognize the legitimacy of Washington's anti-terrorism campaign.1

Iran's top political and religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in his country's foreign relations, said in a televised speech on September 26 that "the Islamic Republic of Iran will not offer any assistance to America and its allies in their attack [on Afghanistan]." As the audience chanted "Death to America" and "God is Great," Khamenei accused the US of seeking to establish itself in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the subcontinent under the pretext of establishing security. Khamenei's first public statement about the terrorist attacks on the US, on 17 September, was not very encouraging, either. He said that "America's expansionist policies were the cause of recent developments" and that "most of the evidence points the finger of suspicion towards the Zionists for masterminding the recent incidents in America."

These statements seem to eliminate any prospects of an Iranian role in this stage of the war on terrorism, and many in Washington remain skeptical about a country that the State Department has designated as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism."2 Nevertheless, the United States will find it difficult to ignore Iran completely in any sort of conflict in Afghanistan.

No Love Lost

Regional analyst Graham Fuller predicted ten years ago that "a strongly fundamentalist regime in Kabul . . . could itself move into conflict with Iran if it has its own independent, Sunni, Islamic agenda for the region."3 This came to pass when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan: Tehran referred to the Taliban victory as a Sunni and American plot to isolate it, and Supreme Leader Khamenei said the Taliban were a disgrace to Islam.4

Such expressions of hostility toward the Taliban may be surprising to many in America, for whom Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution remains the paradigm of political Islam. Indeed, some of the Afghan Mujahedin who fought Soviet invaders from during the 1980s received aid from Iran. Overall, however, Iranian influence over the Afghan Mujahedin at that time was limited. Iranian assistance never approached the level of American assistance, and most of it went to the predominantly Shi'ite Hazara minority, which did not play as big a part in the resistance as the Pakistan-based groups did. In fact, Iranian assistance and efforts to impose unity set the Shi'ite groups against each other.5 And when Iran did offer to assist the other groups, it was on the condition that they adopt anti-American positions. Tehran condemned the reliance on Western arms and rarely allowed weapons from Pakistan to be transported through Iran to Afghanistan.

There are important theological and ideological differences between Talibanism and the Shi'ite Islam of Iran. The Taliban's ideological base is the extreme form of Deobandism that was being espoused by Pakistani Islamist parties, and part of this creed was the rejection of Shi'ite Islam. "From the perspective of Talibanism, Islam is an iron bed on which the society and human beings must be placed and all made to fit by stretching or sawing off the parts that do not fit," a Tehran daily noted recently, adding that the Taliban are the Islamic Khmer Rouge.6

Burhanuddin Rabbani
Tehran has shown a great knack for realpolitik over the years, so it probably could have overcome such theological disputes with the new rulers of Afghanistan to achieve a modus vivendi had it not been for factors such as the 1998 killing of Iranian officials by the Taliban, increased narcotics smuggling, and massive refugee flows.

Around the time of the Taliban takeover, Tehran announced that the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan) was reunited under deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. In June 1997, the Taliban accused Tehran of aiding the opposition and closed the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. Three months later, the Taliban accused Iran of airlifting supplies to the opposition during the battle for Mazar-i Sharif, and the Taliban said they would support the Iranian opposition if this situation persisted.7 In December 1997, Tehran sponsored a conference at which all the Afghan religious and military groups but the Taliban were present.

In August 1998, Tehran accused the Taliban of taking as hostages ten Iranian diplomats and one journalist in Mazar-i Sharif, and Tehran also expressed concern about more than 35 Iranian truck drivers being held by Afghans. After initially denying any knowledge about the diplomats' whereabouts, the Taliban in September admitted that what they called "rogue elements" had in fact killed them. But the Taliban refused to apologize, refused to extradite the killers, and accused the dead Iranians of having been intelligence officers.

The Iranian government and public were outraged by these developments: there were massive demonstrations, and many members of the leadership demanded action. Making the outbreak of war seem even more likely was the fact that these events took place in the run-up to Iran's Sacred Defense Week, which commemorates the Iran-Iraq War.

In early September 1998, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) began the Ashura-3 exercises along the eastern border with 70,000 troops. When the exercises concluded, these troops stayed behind. With the arrival of other troops for new exercises (Zulfaqar-2), Iranian sources suggested that there were approximately 270,000 Iranian soldiers near the border, although US Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth told Congress that "the number of Iranian soldiers appears to be far less than that." Meanwhile, Iranian naval forces increased their activities in the Persian Gulf and in a cluster of small lakes, known collectively as Lake Hamun, that lie between Afghanistan and Iran's Sistan va Baluchistan Province.

On October 8, the situation deteriorated. Iranian news outlets reported that Taliban forces had attacked an IRGC post in Khorasan Province but had been beaten back. A Taliban spokesman said the Iranian reports were "totally baseless." By mid-October, the shuttle diplomacy of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, appeared to be yielding results, and the Taliban released groups of imprisoned Iranians. But the Iranian government refused to meet with its Taliban counterparts until the killers of the Iranian diplomats were punished. But the situation settled down because regional states took steps to prevent the conflict's escalation.

Tensions remained at a moderate level until May 1999, when the Taliban accused Iranian armed forces of entering western Afghanistan and firing artillery in support of insurgents. The Taliban then claimed to have "crushed an attempted uprising in Western Herat Province," killing 50 and capturing 200 Iranian-backed insurgents.8 As a result of these alleged incursions, the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad protested to Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For its part, Iran submitted four protest notes to the United Nations, complaining that "Afghan armed forces and gangs" frequently violated Iranian land borders and air space.

Relations between Tehran and the Taliban seemed to be on the upswing by December 1999, when the Afghan (rather than Taliban) Embassy in Tehran requested help in dealing with internally displaced persons, leading Iran to re-open the eastern border and dispatch trucks loaded with cooking oil, grain, and other essential supplies.9 Taliban Foreign Minister Mowlawi Wakil Ahmad Motawakkil sent a letter to Tehran proposing direct negotiations.10 Since then, there have been several reciprocal visits. Most recently, Taliban officials visited Mashhad in early February 2001 to request development aid.11 Also, Iran has sold asphalt to Afghanistan, and the Taliban have been in secret negotiations with Tehran regarding the construction of a bridge.12

However, Afghan production and smuggling of opium and related narcotics into Iran has continued to greatly irritate Tehran.13 Afghanistan produced 3,700 tons of opium in 2000 - three times more than all other areas of the world combined. According to the UN Drug Control Program, Tehran confiscates around 85% of all drugs seized internationally, apart from cocaine, but it stops only about 17% of the total traffic. Tehran claims that drug traffickers have killed over 3,000 members of its security forces. 60% of the drugs coming into Iran move on to Turkey, the Persian Gulf, and to Europe, but 40% of the drugs go to major trading centers in Iran for domestic consumption. An estimated five tons of opium are consumed in Iran every day.14 About 1.5-2.0% of the Iranian population is addicted to drugs. A related problem is Iran's growing AIDS epidemic: 67% of Iran's AIDS victims are drug addicts who acquired the HIV virus through intravenous injections.

The Taliban banned opium cultivation in 2000, and surveys in 2001 by the UN Drug Control Program and by officials from different countries confirmed that opium cultivation had ceased. The existing opium stockpiles, however, are estimated to be sufficient for at least one more year.

Afghan refugees have been coming to Iran since the Soviet invasion. Currently there are about 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Iran (and another 600,000 from other countries). Coping with this foreign presence is both costly and increasingly unpopular. Last year the director of the Iranian Interior Ministry's immigrant affairs department said that providing for the refugees costs Iran about $1 billion annually. Iran, furthermore, suffers from an estimated 25% unemployment rate, and there are frequent complaints that the refugees take Iranian jobs because they will work for less money. Mainly for this reason, but also because much of the crime in Iran's eastern provinces is blamed on the Afghans, the Iranian government frequently has resorted to forcibly repatriating the refugees.

Rival Opposition Groups

Another way the Taliban and Tehran irritate each other is by hosting and backing each other's opposition groups. The Taliban give refuge to Sunni Iranian groups that are in conflict with the government in Tehran. Since 1996, the Taliban have aided the Ahl-i Sunnah Wal Jamaat, which recruits Iranian Sunni militants from Turkmen, Baluchi, and Afghan minorities.15 Its spokesmen claim that they want to overthrow Tehran's Shi'ite regime and replace it with a Taliban-style Sunni one (an unlikely prospect, since about 89% of the Iranian population is Shi'ite).

For it part, Tehran provides weapons, training and large-scale funding to a number of Afghan opposition groups, some of which operate in a coalition known as the Northern Alliance, which is led by President Rabbani (its famed military leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated in early September 2001 by two suicide bombers posing as journalists). Rabbani heads the Jamiyat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, while the main Shi'ite group, the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan), is headed by Muhammad Karim Khalili. The Hizb-i Wahdat claims that it has 10,000 fighters and it could organize a 100,000-man army if it was allowed to recruit among the refugee population in Iran.16 Another Shi'ite group close to Iran is the Akbari faction of the Hizb-i Wahdat, led by Seyyed Muhammad Akbari, a non-Hazara Shia. Another commander, Abdul Haq, is linked with former Afghan monarch Zahir Shah and claims that he can organize an anti-Taliban uprising.

Tehran hosts other Afghan opposition groups that sometimes work together. In March 2000, for example, Tehran arranged for Afghan Generals Abdul Malik and Rashid Dustum to meet in Mashhad (after which they announced a new anti-Taliban alliance), and Iran also arranged a meeting between Massoud and Dustum in Uzbekistan. Tehran hosts Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who leads the Hizb-i Islami Afghanistan, but he refuses to cooperate with the Northern Alliance.

Iran's relationship with these armed opposition groups precludes its being a bystander in any major Afghan conflict. A former US government analyst notes that the Northern Alliance controls about a quarter of Afghanistan's territory,17 and some observers of Afghan affairs have urged Washington to back the Northern Alliance against the Taliban actively.18 For their part, Northern Alliance spokesmen claimed in late September that they could form an army of 45,000 men and offered to lead a ground attack against the Taliban, as long as the US would provide air support.

Tehran and the Peace Processes

Iran has been part of several multilateral efforts to resolve the Afghan crisis. One of these is the UN-backed 6+2 Group (Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and China, as well as Russia and the US). An academic observer of Iranian politics explained that it is within this context that Tehran would like to see the current Afghan crisis solved. "The leaders in Iran prefer the 6+2 Group formula at the United Nations - that is, the formula that was created to solve Afghanistan - because 6+2 allows Iran to participate in this coalition without publicly losing face that it is siding with the United States."19

Tehran also is involved with the three processes involving exile Afghan groups that are promoting a Loya Jirga (a council of elders which is a traditional Afghan forum for conflict resolution) and peace plan for their country - the Cyprus Process, Bonn Process, and Rome Process. The Rome Process involves exiled Afghan monarch Zahir Shah. Washington is funding and organizing the travel of several Afghan opposition figures to Rome to confer with the exiled monarch.20

The Cyprus Process is organized by the son-in-law of Afghan resistance commander Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who lives in Iran. In late September 2001, Hekmatyar said that if the US attacks Afghanistan, "we will have no other choice than to take up arms against the Americans in order to defend our country."21 Referring to Zahir Shah, Hekmatyar said he told the US that "Mullah Omar would be better than that puppet of a former king." Hekmatyar also criticized Northern Alliance chiefs for advocating coordination with the US in attacking the Taliban.22 Earlier in the year, Hekmatyar said that he opposed the actions of both the Afghan opposition and the Taliban, calling instead for a two-year interim government that would be followed by elections.23


Over the years, Tehran has tried, with varying degrees of urgency, to resolve the Afghan conflict multilaterally. In March 2001, Minister of Defense Abbas Shamkhani visited Tajikistan to discuss Afghan affairs, while Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi discussed Afghanistan and other regional problems when he traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan at the beginning of September. Afghanistan also is a topic of discussion when Iranian officials visit Moscow.

After the attacks on the US, there were more meetings. Envoys from Iran, the US, Germany, and Italy met in Geneva on September 21 to discuss the situation. Two days later, Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi met with the Northern Alliance's new military commander, General Mohammad Fahim-khan, in Dushanbe. The meeting's other participants were the chief of the Russian General Staff, Anatolii Kvashnin, the deputy chief of the FSB (Russian intelligence service), Viktor Komogorov, and the deputy chief of the FSB Anti-Terrorist Center, Valery Verchagin, as well as intelligence chiefs from Central Asian states.24

Tehran may hate the Taliban, but it is even less enthusiastic about the possibility that the Taliban's successors would be installed through US-led actions. This explains Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi's statement on September 20 that "We will never allow American airplanes to use Iranian airspace to attack Afghanistan," and Khamenei's outright refusal to assist the US in an attack against Afghanistan. Instead, Iranian officials have telephoned many of their counterparts in other countries and argued that a solution should be developed within a UN context or even under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Washington, for its part, is certainly aware that it cannot ignore Iran when dealing with Afghanistan, not only because of Iran's location but because of its extended support for the Afghan opposition. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's telephone conversation with President Khatami on September 20 and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's visit to Tehran five days later are perhaps a reflection of this realization, as is the message of gratitude from Washington to Tehran for Khatami's expression of sympathy last week. The extent of Iranian involvement in an anti-Taliban coalition may never be fully known, however, because Tehran will not want to be perceived as openly cooperating with the US.


  1 Tehran Times, 19 September 2001.
  2 US Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2000, April 2001.
  3 Graham E. Fuller, The 'Center' of The Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), p. 231.
  4 Ralph H. Magnus & Eden Naby, Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), p. 190.
  5 Fuller, p. 229. Roseanne Klass, ed., Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited (New York, Freedom House, 1987), p. 218.
  6 "Talebanism in Theory and Practice," Asr-i Ma, 8 September 2001. This article, which appeared in the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization's mouthpiece, was more a criticism of Iran's dogmatic and hard-line clerics than a commentary on the regime to the east.
  7 Agence France Presse (AFP), 22 September 1997.
  8 Wahdat, 18 May 1999; DPA news agency, 21 May1999.
  9 Iranian state radio's Dari service, 15 December 1999.
  10 AFP, 26 December 1999.
  11 Jomhuri-yi Islami, 8 February 2001.
  12 Taliban Minister of Public Works Mowlawi Ahmadollah Mati, cited by Shariat, 19 December 2000. Toseh, cited by Iran Daily, 17 September 2001.
  13 A.W. Samii & Charles Recknagel, "Iran's War On Drugs," Transnational Organized Crime, (forthcoming).
  14 Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), 25 June 2000.
  15 See Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  16 Guy Dinmore, "Afghan warlords may weigh heavily in Iran's plans against Taliban," Financial Times, 24 September 2001.
  17 Julie Sirrs, "The Taliban's International Ambitions," Middle East Quarterly, (Summer 2001).
  18 Reuel Marc Gerecht, "The Terrorists Encyclopedia," Middle East Quarterly, (Summer 2001).
  19 University of Maine Professor Bahman Baktiari, cited in RFE/RL Iran Report, 24 September 2001.
  20 The Guardian, 21 September 2001.
  21 Le Figaro, 21 September 2001.
  22 Reuters, 20 September 2001.
  23 Qods, 6 February 2001.
  24 RFE/RL Security Watch (Vol. 2, No. 37), 24 September 2001.

2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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