When in 1996, the Taliban proclaimed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after taking power in Kabul, Iran became a prominent regional supporter of the opposition Northern Alliance. Iran had long feared that the primarily ethnic-Pashtun and Sunni Muslim Taliban would treat culturally Persianate as well as Shi’a Muslim minorities in Afghanistan unfairly. Things became even more tense in respect of Iran-Taliban relations when in 1998, the Taliban government executed ten Iranian diplomats at Tehran’s consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. At the time, it looked as though war might breakout between Iran and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
In the decades that followed, Iran’s position regarding the rights of Shi’a Muslims and culturally Persianate peoples of Afghanistan has not changed, but what has changed are the goals, mentality and political policies of the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban of the 1990s was comprised of individuals who cut their teeth during the US backed Mujahideen war against Afghanistan’s fledgling post-Saur revolution regime. As such, the Taliban of the 1990s exhibited many extremist tendencies that were later encouraged by the presence of the mostly Arab terror group al-Qaeda under its then leader Osama bin Laden. Even prior to the fall of the first Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan distanced itself from bin Laden after the 9/11 terror atrocity in the United Sates.
What is less remembered is that in October of 2001, in what appeared to be a face saving gesture, the Taliban had offered to hand bin Laden over to a third party (likely Pakistan) that would then extradite him to the United States so long as Washington could provide evidence of his role in the 9/11 attacks. Washington refused this offer and instead commenced with a bombing campaign and invasion of Afghanistan while bin Laden’s actual whereabouts fell conspicuously off the radar.
While Iran’s relations with the US in 2001 were almost as bad as they are today, many in Tehran were happy to see the Taliban removed from power in neighbouring Afghanistan, even if this removal was achieved by US power. Today, the atmosphere is very different.
The current generation of Afghan Taliban leadership is markedly different that of the 1990s. Today’s Taliban has proved that it is willing to work with a variety of international partners that it once considered enemies including both Iran and Russia. Furthermore, the Taliban’s domestic policies in the upwards of 50% of Afghan territory back under its control are notably more moderate than that which existed in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
In a recent statement form Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, the group wished to convey a message that it has mended its ways when compared with that of the 1990s. Zabiullah Mujahid was quoted by Reuters as saying:
“If peace comes and the Taliban return, then our return will not be in the same harsh way as it was in 1996. We want to assure Afghan nationals that there will be no threat to anyone from our side”.
“Our opposition is with the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Once they are out and a peace deal is reached, then a nationwide amnesty will be announced. No one, police, army, government employees or anyone, will face revenge behaviour from our side”.
It is this mentality that has helped to mend long strained Iran-Taliban relations. According to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi, Taliban representatives met with Iranian officials in Tehran to discuss a regional peace process against the background of China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran working ever more closely to help foster an all-parties peace process for Afghanistan.
Just as alignments of the Cold War era have evaporated into thin air and have subsequently changed inexorably, the position of the Taliban both in a regional and domestic sense has changed since the 1990s. Far from just being a public relations move, if Iran – a country whose national ideology is as different from that of the old Taliban as one can get, is happy to sit at the peace table with the Afghan based group, self-evidently everything has changed.