Iranian involvement in the Arab world has long been a point of intense debate among observers of Iranian foreign and security policies. However, Iran’s relationship with its eastern neighbors, Afghanistan and Pakistan, has become particularly important since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, which has significantly altered the regional geopolitical landscape.
Iran-Afghanistan Ties Under the Taliban
Iran expert Mohsen Milani has argued that the Iranian regime had adopted a two-pronged approach to Afghanistan: creating an ideological sphere of influence, by courting and mobilizing Shia Hazara groups in the country, and developing a political sphere of influence, through engagement and support of predominantly non-Shia Persian-speaking ethnic minority groups that coalesced to form the Northern Alliance in 1992. Iranian maneuvering pitted the Northern Alliance against Pashtun groups in Afghanistan supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These tensions were exacerbated by the emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s as a new power broker and were heightened after 11 Iranian diplomats were killed by Taliban forces after they seized the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.
After the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran gradually revised its approach and began engagement with the Taliban. However, Iran hadn’t severed its support for its traditional Northern Alliance ally in Herat, Ismail Khan. Yet, as the Taliban launched a military offensive in 2021, alongside the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and attacked Herat, Iran didn’t lend support to Khan; this suggested a silent approval of the Taliban takeover. There was some unease in Tehran over the Taliban takeover of Panjshir, the support base of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, but it didn’t hinder engagement between the two sides.
In January, the Taliban foreign minister traveled to Tehran for his first official visit with Iranian leaders. His aim was to gain diplomatic recognition while emphasizing that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan posed no threat to Iran. Iran on the other hand, wants the Taliban government to take steps that would satisfy Iranian concerns in the political, religious, and hydro domains. Iran wants an inclusive political setup in Kabul that embraces pro-Iranian political figures and groups not historically associated with the Taliban movement ideologically or ethnically. The Taliban has largely remained a monolithic sociopolitical entity led by Pushtun madrasa teachers and students (the Haqqani faction is an exception to this). Although Taliban ranks now include Tajik and Uzbek members hailing from the same sociopolitical background and linked to the madrassa system, they have not politically accommodated the traditional mujahedeen cum warlords from various ethnicities in their first and the current government. From an Iranian perspective, such figures could include Khan, who is already based in Iran, and Ahmad Massoud (son of Ahmad Shah Massoud and the leader of the National Resistance Front comprised of former members of the Northern Alliance) both of whom held talks with the Taliban delegation in Tehran.
On the religious side, Iran was concerned with the Taliban’s characterization of Afghan Shias as a religious minority group during the 2020 peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha. Thus, Iran wants the Taliban to officially recognize the Shia Jafari school of thought as part of Islamic jurisprudence tradition as the Taliban government codifies a new constitution for Afghanistan.
Iran also wants the Taliban to adhere to the 1973 water treaty regarding the flow of the Helmand River and keep the Kamal Khan Dam open. Water from the Helmand River feeds the Hamoun wetlands in the Sistan and Baluchistan province of Iran. These wetlands are central to all aspects of life in the region and have been gradually drying up due to climate change and poor water management. There has already been significant unrest and violence in the Sistan and Baluchistan province with attacks by Sunni insurgent groups, so obstructing the flow of the Helmand River could exacerbate political unrest.
Iran’s relationship with its other eastern neighbor has also had its fair share of complications. Under the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran boasted exemplary ties with Pakistan and was one of its most formidable allies. However, the 1977 military coup of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran changed the dynamic as both countries charted opposite routes to Islamization. Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia and aversion to the United States and Pakistan’s subsequent alignment with these two states widened the distance and increased the political distrust between Iran and Pakistan throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
The bilateral relationship improved to an extent during the government of the Pakistan Peoples Party in Pakistan from 2008-13, during which Iran and Pakistan finalized a gas pipeline agreement. But with the arrival of a pro-Saudi government in Islamabad in 2013, the pipeline initiative stopped in its tracks. Pakistan refrained from joining the Saudi intervention in the Yemen war in 2015 and tried to remain neutral regarding the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region, yet the relationship with Iran never recovered fully. The arrest of an Indian spy in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province (who had entered the country from Iran) during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s 2016 visit to Pakistan further dampened bilateral ties.
Instability and violence along the Iran-Pakistan border indeed remain a key variable hindering the normalization of bilateral ties. Attacks on Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps installations and officials in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province by the Sunni militant Jundallah organization and its present manifestation Jaish al-Adl have exacerbated tensions with Iran. Iranian leaders believe that these militants operate from Pakistan and have demanded that Pakistan take action against their camps. Pakistan’s side of Baluchistan has also experienced multiple attacks by Baluch separatists against security forces, civilians, and even Chinese nationals involved in China Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, compelling Pakistan’s government to demand Iranian action against terrorist hideouts on the Iranian side.
There has been a significant increase in the intensity of attacks in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province since the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, resulting in casualties of security personnel. These attacks have displayed a new degree of sophistication on the part of the militant Baluchistan Liberation Army. Unlike terrorist entities active in northwestern Pakistan, the Baluch groups have never held any territory in Pakistan and thus, after every attack, cross the border back to Iran.
Pakistan’s security establishment has been further irked by the involvement of multiple Iranian intelligence operatives in Pakistan in money laundering activities, including a senior civil servant in the Pakistani government. This might add complications for Pakistan, a country already on the gray list of the financial watchdog Financial Action Task Force, owing to deficiencies in countering terrorism financing and money laundering, to satisfy FATF reviewers. Furthermore, the involvement of the IRGC in the recruitment of Pakistanis for its war effort in Syria has been a source of concern for Pakistani security officials, who worry these militants’ return and involvement in sectarian violence could increase domestic instability.
On the Iranian side, Tehran took issue with Pakistan’s support to Azerbaijan in its recent flare-up with Armenia, which ended with Azerbaijan reclaiming the Nagorno-Karabakh region, changing the geopolitical outlook on Iran’s northern border. Iran also seems concerned over Pakistan’s new role in Afghanistan as many Iranian leaders still consider the Taliban a proxy of Pakistan.
Recent violence in Pakistani Baluchistan may have been an Iranian response to these greater geopolitical changes that have comparatively improved Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis Iran. The sudden surge in insurgent activities has sent a message to Pakistani leaders that Iran still holds important cards up its sleeves and can adversely impact the security environment in Baluchistan and derail China Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, specifically the development of the port of Gwadar. Iran has also deployed a brigade of its armed forces in Sistan and Baluchistan province to support the border guard, showing elevated Iranian concerns over the increase in the threat level on the border.
However, Pakistan’s patience is seemingly running low. Pakistan’s strategic community of analysts and commentators has taken an unusually aggressive tone with regard to Iran. A prominent commentator allegedly claimed that more than a hundred Pakistani troops have been killed in attacks by Iranian proxies in the last two years and a “chemotherapy of Iran” has become necessary. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s intelligence chief made an unannounced trip to Iran apparently with a stiff message that prompted an immediate visit by Iran’s interior minister to Pakistan alongside the head of Iran’s border guards. Interestingly, the Iranian interior minister also happens to be a former commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the military component of the IRGC responsible for foreign military operations and recruitment.
The Iran-Pakistan strategic environment has evolved considerably in the last year and has upended the post-9/11 security order in the region. Now Pakistan, owing to its new security linkages with Azerbaijan and traditional ties with various Taliban factions, can affect two more theaters, on Iran’s northern and eastern border, respectively. Pakistan has not at this point shown any signs it is trying to exploit these new strategic realities against Iran, but this nonetheless has noticeably perturbed Iran (which considers this a long-term security challenge), prompting the spike in violence in Baluchistan. For now, Pakistani leaders are continuing their strategy of working with Iran’s security infrastructure, specifically the IRGC (through a joint task force of their interior ministries), in addressing violence along the border zone and are erecting a fence. Yet, owing to the dependence of the local economy on cross-border smuggling, the instability and violence are likely to persist, thereby complicating ties even further.