ISLAMABAD: The Iranian security establishment hosted top negotiators of the Afghan Taliban this month to push for the Islamic republic’s possible role in facilitating the Afghan peace process and to counter the looming threat of the Islamic State or Daish in Afghanistan.
Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and the Iranian Tasnim news agency, mouthpiece of the Iranian Pasdaran-e-Inquilab (Revolutionary Guards), confirmed the visit of the Taliban delegation, led by the head of their political office Syed Tayyeb Agha, a close confidant of Mullah Omar.
It was the Taliban’s third visit to Iran since they established an office in Qatar in June 2013. The Taliban spokesman described the May 18 visit as one of the “series of trips by delegations of the Islamic Emirate that travel to various countries to discuss bilateral issues, and to form, expand and strengthen ties.”
Similar comments were also made by unnamed Iranian security officials in the media.
In light of the Taliban visit, it seems Iran may be willing to spring into action in the urgently-needed reconciliation process as the country enjoys good relations with Afghanistan and since efforts by other regional key players, including China and Pakistan, have so far failed to convince the Taliban to join the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Iran is also a member of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process and could be seen as an important player in the peace process if the US and its Western allies do not hamper political moves by regional players.
Pakistan also recognises Iran’s key role in the stability of Afghanistan and the region.
“Iran is a very important part of this region and can play a significant role in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan because without peace and stability, the development prospects for which Afghanistan has great potential, cannot really take off,” Pakistan’s foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz told IRNA news agency on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process meeting in Islamabad this week.
Both Iran and the Afghan Taliban are concerned after reports emerged that Taliban and supporters of Daish have clashed in the eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.
A looming threat
Although Taliban play down the emergence of Daish in Afghanistan, Iranian officials are publicly talking about the threat.
“We consider Daish a serious threat to Afghanistan. If substantial steps are not taken, the threat will spread out of control,” Iran’s ambassador to Kabul, Mohammad Raza Bahrami, told the private Afghan 1TV in an interview this month.
“We believe terrorism and extremism are a common threat to everyone and terrorist activities in Afghanistan will not be limited only to Afghanistan, but swell to the neighbouring countries. So there is a need for joint cooperation,” Bahrami was quoted saying.
Following concerns expressed by senior Afghan leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani, the top commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan US General John Campbell has said in recently reported remarks that Daish is recruiting militants in Afghanistan.
“We are seeing reports of some recruiting. There have been some night letter drops, there have been reports of people trying to recruit both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quite frankly,” he told the Army Times, in an interview last week.
Iran may still have reservations over the Taliban’s hard-line approach towards Shias in view of the policy adopted during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001 and would want assurances in case the Taliban reach any peace deal with Kabul.
Iran was on the brink of war with the Taliban when they stormed their consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and killed several Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist.
Taliban leaders’ trips to Iran could be seen as efforts by both sides to bury the hatchet.
Some Afghan political watchers are of the opinion that the Taliban’s growing contacts with Iran could also be a message to Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the Taliban’s attacks as terrorism this month in rare remarks by any top Pakistani leader.
Although Taliban publicly avoided reaction to the Sharif’s statement, privately, their leaders say they are “upset at the Pakistani leaders’ approach”. Some Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami leaders are also seemingly angry at the recently signed agreement between the intelligence agencies of the two countries.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2015.