Analysis |

Taliban Surge Will Force Iran to Forge a New Defense Strategy

On the nuclear issue and with the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, Iran may again have to display what Khamenei has called 'heroic flexibility'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Internally displaced Afghan families fled from Kunduz and Takhar province collect food in Kabul on Monday.
Internally displaced Afghan families fled from Kunduz and Takhar province collect food in Kabul on Monday.Credit: Wakil KOHSAR / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A new front developing in the east of Iran is threatening its security. At the end of the month the United States is expected to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is already falling into the Taliban’s hands.

The Taliban already control more than 60 percent of Afghanistan’s provinces, by conservative estimates, and they are approaching Kandahar on their way to Helmand province. In 60 to 90 days they are expected to conquer the capital Kabul.

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Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from their homes, thousands are crossing the border to Iran daily and joining the 2 million Afghan refugees who settled there after the previous wars. Most of these refugees come from the Shi’ite provinces. Some were drafted into Iranian militias operating in Syria, others have enlisted to fight in Libya.

For Iran, which provides them with education and health services, this is a huge economic burden. But the security risk is greater. The Taliban rule in Afghanistan will turn it into Iran’s enemy.

Iran, which stuck to the principle of ousting all the foreign powers, that is, the Americans, from the Middle East, understands that the international forces that helped Afghanistan, albeit partially, to block the Taliban’s approach, were good for it. Once they pull out, Iran will have to forge a new defense strategy that could require it to sleep with the enemy, and not for the first time. Despite the historic rift between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, Iran not only supported the Sunni Afghan government, it even opened communication channels with the Taliban forces to prevent attacks in its territory by Sunni Islamic State forces, who wanted to use the border area between the states as a base for actions against Iran.

One of the options Iran faces now is to expand the cooperation with the Taliban, who have been using Iran for years as a route to export drugs to the West, providing the main income source for their activities. Iran, apparently, has no problem cooperating with Sunni governments and organizations, even when they advocate religious or national views opposed to its principles. Like every rational state, Iran’s ideology bends in the face of necessity. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called it “heroic flexibility,” which Iran displayed several times in recent years.

This week, when President Ebrahim Raisi presented his cabinet choices to the parliament, there was at least one among them who was especially pleased with the chance to settle the score with the outgoing government of Hassan Rohani.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who has been tapped as foreign minister, was the deputy to former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who fired him in 2016. Amir-Abdollahian is very close to the Revolutionary Guards and was a friend of Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander who was killed in January 2020. He built himself an almost independent power base in the Foreign Ministry and conducted a policy that ran counter to Zarif’s, especially regarding the talks with the United States. Zarif’s rivals claimed he fired Amir-Abdollahian three days after Zarif met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We’re not pleased that influential people like Abdollahian leave the government system, but his absence won’t affect Iran’s support for the resistance,” the chairman of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said at the time.

Rohani was also blasted at the time for not standing up to the Americans and for firing the deputy foreign minister in compliance with Washington’s demands. In diplomatic and intelligence jargon, Abdollahian is seen as an “extremist” who will influence the negotiations with the Western powers. If his appointment is ratified, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, Israeli and Western analysts expect him to raise new demands and do everything possible to foil a new nuclear deal, which has been in the works in Vienna since April.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kunduz city, Monday.Credit: AP Photo/Abdullah Sahil

But “extreme” and “moderate” are deceptive terms that do little to explain Iranian foreign policy.

For example, Abdollahian was sent in 2014 to represent Iran at Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s inauguration. The fact that Sissi had arrested his own predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, didn’t bother Iran, which then launched a campaign to advance its relations with Cairo.

“The Egyptian people pioneered the support for the Palestinians since the growth of the Palestinian problem, and without the Egyptian help the Palestinian nation couldn’t have persevered against the Israeli aggression,” Khamenei’s political advisor Ali Akhbar Velayati announced. And Abdollahian said, “Egypt’s national security is linked to Iran’s security.”

Who would have believed that the state that boycotted Egypt after it signed the Camp David Accords and harshly denounced Morsi’s ouster would welcome the new Egyptian president, who strengthened his ties with Israel? This is but one example of the gap that sometimes appears between the profile built by intelligence services about senior Iranians and their policy, which depends on political, economic and military interests, regardless of how they expressed themselves in public. Similar caution is required when it comes to Raisi, whose profile Israel presented to CIA chief William Burns in his visit here this week.

According to Israel News 12, the “Raisi file” presented by Mossad head David Barnea says that “[t]he new Iranian president is a brutal man who is responsible for the death of thousands of people in Iran, some of them with his own hands. On the basis of the same testimonies Raisi derived pleasure from the murder acts. The Mossad also says he has borderline personality disorder ... and Israel fears it will be impossible to reach an agreement with the problematic president. And even if an agreement is signed, he won’t necessarily comply with it.”

Israel has good relations with a number of leaders whose personality is seen as borderline, but that’s not the main point. Doesn’t the CIA have its own profile on Raisi that it needs Israel’s analysis to know who it’s dealing with in Tehran? Has Israel, which warned that Raisi won’t necessarily keep the agreement, forgotten that it was President Donald Trump, himself a man with “borderline personality disorder,” who broke the nuclear agreement?

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech after taking his oath as president in a ceremony at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, last week.Credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Or did the profile’s publication have another purpose, like stressing that Iran is being run by an irrational regime, a fanatic supreme leader and a government of murderers, and therefore no agreement must be signed with it? Interestingly, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in September 2015 in Washington, “I agree that a better agreement could have been reached, but I see the glass as half full and the success of removing Iran 10-15 years from nuclear” capability. He was “only” a discharged chief of staff then and yet untainted by politics. If he had any doubts about Iran’s keeping the agreement, he didn’t mention them.

There’s no dispute that Raisi was among those directly responsible for the murder of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in 1988. New, horrifying details will no doubt be revealed in the trial taking place in Sweden against Hamid Nouri, an Iranian prison official suspected of carrying out the murders.

Presenting Raisi’s profile raises another question. If the assumption is that the highest person responsible for the nuclear negotiations is Khamenei and that the president is bound by the guidelines he dictated, then what is Raisi’s relevance? It’s the same Khamenei who approved the agreement in 2015 and allowed resuming the talks this year.

The answer is that the president is considerably important in setting the atmosphere, in interpreting the basic lines, in appointing the negotiating team and in framing the achievements or failures. His “extremism” can certainly have an effect, but was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad less extreme than Raisi? Wasn’t he responsible for the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators and for the arrest of thousands who protested against his dubious election in 2009?

Yet it was in his term that the secret talks between the Iranians and the Americans started in Oman, leading to the nuclear agreement when Rohani was elected.

By the way, the one heading the American team then was no other than William Burns, the CIA head who saw the agreement as a personal and American achievement.

Iran’s religious, national ideology has of course a supreme status and every move is done in its name. But these principles are not carved in stone. When necessary, they are given to interpretation that corresponds to immediate interests and needs, not only in nuclear matters. For example, three days ago Mohammad Reza Zafarghandi, the president of Iran’s Medical Council, slammed Khamenei’s order not to import coronavirus vaccines from the West in general and from the United States in particular. “Will those who restricted the vaccines’ import be held accountable today?” he tweeted. He didn’t mention Khamenei’s name, but everyone knows who he was referring to.

A day later Khamenei said on television that everything must be done to increase the number of vaccines, whether by domestic production or by importing them “in any way possible.” It seemed that the ban on importing from the West evaporated without an explicit statement.

Has the coronavirus and its tens of thousands of fatalities – some say more than a quarter of a million people – bent the principle? If so, why is there a growing assumption that the economic crisis, the drought, the dwindling income, the rial’s devaluation, the dozens of demonstrations and strikes will no longer provide the pretext to renew the nuclear talks soon, so that the sanctions are lifted? After all, it was the same sanctions that led Iran to the negotiation table to begin with.

It’s too soon to make final conclusions. Raisi has been president for a week, and he doesn’t yet have a cabinet or a negotiating team. A leader’s “profile” is a fickle device. It can describe the past but it can’t predict the future.

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