Though Tehran continues to engage the government in Kabul in a pragmatic fashion, Iran and the Taliban are not traditional friends or allies; they share an uneasy relationship. Iran’s attitude toward the Afghan Taliban has been dictated by a multitude of complex bilateral and regional factors. There is a sectarian angle to their differences. And a long-standing dispute over water resources adds another layer of controversy. However, despite the many difficulties and contradictions in bilateral relations, Iran has not reverted to the hostile posture it adopted toward the Taliban in the 1990s. On the contrary, it has sought to normalize relations, proving to be a key facilitator in the process of mainstreaming the second Taliban regime since the latter’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021.

Iran was cautious in welcoming the Afghan Taliban’s military triumph. After all, Tehran had long demanded the withdrawal of US and Western allied troops from Afghanistan, accusing them of being the source of regional instability. Therefore, it was logical for Iran to view the decisive Taliban victory as an opportunity to stabilize the restive neighborhood. Although there is some continuity, Iran’s current engagement with the Taliban regime differs from its previous interactions in important ways.

Ideological versus security-driven motivations

Iran’s current overtures toward the Taliban appear in part to reflect Tehran’s ideologically driven efforts to seek alternatives to the US-dominated global order. Still, Iran’s cautious embrace of Afghanistan’s new government is not primarily based on anti-American sentiment but on a realistic appraisal of the tangible results it can hope to achieve. Tehran has been hoping that the Afghan Taliban would take Iran’s security and political concerns more seriously. The issues that dominate Iran’s relations with Afghanistan include the growing terror threat from the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), water supply to eastern Iran, and the migration of Afghan refugees. In order to see favorable outcomes on these issues, Tehran has been quite pragmatic in its engagement, even though it has not conferred diplomatic recognition upon the Taliban regime. Through reconciliatory gestures, Tehran expects to deepen trust with Kabul.

Although Iran allows some prominent Afghan opposition leaders, including the head of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, Ahmed Massoud, and former Herat warlord Ismail Khan, to frequently visit the country, Tehran is equally aware that it is not possible for any domestic Afghan group or actor to pose a credible challenge to the Taliban regime at present as the latter has consolidated its grip on key institutions of power. Reports of inter-group rivalries within the Taliban notwithstanding, it has managed to show remarkable unity of purpose in ruling Afghanistan. Moreover, amidst fast-changing regional geopolitical shifts, there is no appetite internationally to revive the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

In fact, the major challenge to the Taliban comes from ISKP. While ISKP’s declared aim is the establishment of a caliphate across Central and South Asia, its conflict with the Taliban is primarily based on differing interpretations of the implementation of sharia law, with ISKP insisting on its stricter version. As the terror group has been carrying out violent attacks abroad, claiming responsibility for deadly bombings in Pakistan, Iran, and, most recently Russia, Afghanistan’s neighbors are serious about confronting ISKP. But Iran’s religious and political involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is what makes ISKP an inveterate enemy of Tehran.

The deadly nature of ISKP’s terrorist attacks has encouraged Tehran and the Taliban to overlook their religious differences and cooperate in countering this common threat. Iran is particularly vulnerable to ISKP’s jihadist agenda due to the group’s radically anti-Shi’a stance and its scope for recruiting disgruntled Iranian Sunnis. Since ISKP is a common adversary, Tehran may wish to expand border security cooperation with the Taliban and also explore opportunities for joint intelligence operations. The Taliban, in turn, may allow Iranian forces to target some identified ISKP terror camps inside Afghan territory.

In September 2023, Iran’s intelligence minister, Esmail Khatib, publicly admitted that Iran is “working closely with the Taliban to take action against” ISKP fighters who “have established themselves in mountainous areas where the Taliban government has little access and are carrying out attacks against members of the Taliban.” In August 2023, an Iranian parliamentarian, Mahmoud Nabavian, likewise admitted, “With the help of the Taliban, we [Iran] have prevented terrorist attacks in the holy city of Mashhad.”

Greater counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries has an added benefit for Tehran as it helps silence domestic critics uncomfortable with Shi’a Iran’s convivial relationship with the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban by underscoring its importance for national and regional security. Indeed, last January’s terrorist bombings in Kerman by ISKP have prompted calls in Iran to increase security along the country’s border with Afghanistan. And in a March 6, 2024, meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Iran’s representative asserted that terrorism, drug-trafficking, and border-control deficiencies in Afghanistan are threatening regional stability.

Regional geopolitics

Much like China’s and Russia’s approach, Iran’s policy toward the Afghan Taliban is also driven by geopolitical factors. Iran remains apprehensive about the influence of some other regional powers in Afghanistan. By avoiding actions that could antagonize the Taliban regime, Iran is keen to strengthen its leverage with Kabul to limit the influence of its rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia, the US, and Pakistan. Unwilling, in particular, to lose the battle for influence in Afghanistan to Pakistan, Tehran has made curtailing Islamabad’s role in a Taliban-led Afghanistan a key priority. Additionally, Iran cannot ignore the fact that any ideologically hostile action by the Taliban along the Iran-Afghanistan border region could encourage some Sunni extremist groups within Iran.

Economics and trade

Economic factors also influence Tehran’s engagement with the Taliban, which has itself sought to build economic ties with Iran as access to foreign aid remains suspended. One-third of Afghanistan’s total imports come from Iran. In order to boost bilateral trade and commerce further, Tehran hosted an Iran-Afghanistan Joint Economic Committee meeting in November 2023, attended by the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. It was the first such meeting since the Taliban’s return to power. Both countries have decided to establish additional working groups to identify barriers hindering economic cooperation. This led to the visit of a technical delegation from Afghanistan to Iran on Feb. 24, 2024, in part to assess the facilities of the Chabahar Free Trade Zone and its capability to handle Afghan exports. More such visits would also serve to improve political relations.

Finally, Tehran’s desire to utilize Afghanistan as a transit country for Iranian energy and other exports complements India’s view of Afghanistan as a gateway to Central Asia. In a recent meeting in Kabul between J.P. Singh, India’s top diplomat for Afghanistan, and Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s foreign minister, New Delhi proposed boosting economic cooperation and kick-starting bilateral transit between the two countries using Iran’s Chabahar Port, often referred to as the “Golden Gate” to landlocked Afghanistan.

Continued sources of discord

Water dispute

The water dispute over the Helmand River is likely to remain a contentious issue as both Iran and Afghanistan face increasing water scarcity and depend on the river for agriculture and drinking water. The Helmand River originates in the Hindu Kush Mountains near Kabul and flows across the border into Iran’s Hamoun wetlands in the province of Sistan-Baluchestan. To Iran’s consternation, Afghanistan is building a new dam on the river to generate electricity and irrigate agricultural land. Last May, violent clashes erupted between Iranian and Afghan forces, attributed to the water dispute. While both regimes need to demonstrate strong political resolve on the crucial issue of water supplies, the advantages of mutual cooperation should outweigh an escalation of the dispute.

Sanctuaries for rival opposition groups

By frequently hosting anti-Taliban Afghan opposition leaders as well as having accepted large numbers of Afghan refugees, Iran may be bolstering its tactical leverage against the Taliban regime if political tensions escalate in the future — something Tehran has been accused of in the past. Surprisingly, in January 2022, Tehran officially hosted a meeting between the Taliban and key self-exiled Afghan opposition leaders. Taliban Foreign Minister Muttaqi himself led the Afghan team in the meeting with Massoud, Khan, and other Afghans in Tehran, in the first known direct interaction between the rival sides.

The Taliban has notably not criticized Iran for hosting opposition Afghan leaders, likely due to the crucial importance the regime in Kabul places on diplomatic acceptance in the immediate region and beyond. While Western countries and civil society have been very critical of the Taliban’s regressive edicts concerning women, its reinstatement of public executions, and other repressive policies, Iran has not voiced such criticism, pointedly putting security and economic interests ahead of any concerns over social or human rights issues.

After Pakistan, Iran is the second-biggest host of Afghan refugees worldwide, a fact that locals have mixed opinions about, ranging from solidarity to indifference to hostility. Of late, Afghan migrants have been perceived negatively by many Iranian citizens, who view the former as a socio-political threat. Though Iranian officials estimate the total number of refugees and migrants in Iran to be around 5 million, an overwhelming majority of them are Afghan refugees. And now there is widespread speculation that some Iranian authorities might be turning a blind eye to illegal Afghan immigration to strengthen Iran’s military through recruitment of Shi’a Hazara Afghans.

The Fatemiyoun Division, a branch of Iran’s Quds Force, has already recruited thousands of socio-economically struggling Afghan citizens to fight its proxy battles in Syria. Hailing mainly from the migrant ethnic-Hazara community, whose families traversed Iran’s eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, these Shi’a fighters have proven to be vital assets for Iran in its fight for regional primacy — particularly in conflicts where Iranian citizens are themselves reluctant to participate. Indeed, Iran’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, recently made a controversial claim that “Afghanistan is part of the ‘Axis of Resistance,’” a term used to define the network of Iran-backed proxies and partners opposing the West and Israel in the Middle East. These militant groups help Iran influence political events across the region while allowing Tehran to claim plausible deniability of direct involvement. On Feb. 6, Qomi boasted in an interview that more than one brigade of “martyrdom-seeking” forces could be dispatched from Afghanistan to Gaza to support Hamas. The Taliban did not react to Qomi’s statement.

Iran’s political influence in Afghanistan remains lower relative to Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon as its Afghan Shi’a militias are significantly less active. However, Tehran may be tempted to deploy the battle-hardened Fatemiyoun brigade within Afghanistan to help the Taliban’s campaign against ISKP — perhaps as a quid-pro-quo for the Taliban to support Iran’s proxy conflict with Israel. But any sort of Iranian intervention in Afghanistan would obviously have serious political and security ramifications for the region and would not be taken lightly — nor likely would it avoid provoking a reaction from neighboring powers.


Revolutionary Iran’s and the fundamentalist Taliban’s ideological underpinnings, strategic culture, and broader geopolitical attitudes are not and, by their nature, cannot be congruent. Therefore, the significance of the currently observed Iran-Taliban rapprochement should not be underestimated. While burdened by a number of hostile perceptions dictated by ideological, security, and resource considerations, Iran seems to have bet on the new Taliban regime, which it apparently perceives as far more reformed and potentially less harmful than its previous version. For the sake of regional stability, both sides are trying to find ways to carry forward their reconciliation, though regular communication is essential to overcome misperceptions and hindrances. It is too early to draw any conclusions about future Iranian-Afghan engagement, as the volatile region in which both countries exist has yet to overcome the types of geopolitical rivalries and jihadist terrorism that hamper closer bilateral relations.

While the threat of ISKP offers the prospect of deeper intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, occasional border skirmishes and water-sharing disputes will continue to test the depth of Iran-Taliban ties. Domestically, conservative and reformist sections in Iran continue to differ in their approaches on how to deal with the Afghan Taliban over the long run. However, the Iranian regime seems to have realized it is better to ignore some negative aspects in its ties with Afghanistan in order to focus on larger geopolitical objectives. Engaging the Taliban is, thus, a necessity.


Vinay Kaura, PhD, is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Afghanistan & Pakistan Program, an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, India, and the Deputy Director at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. 

Photo by Republic of Tatarstan Press Service/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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