As the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan this summer and the remaining US troops withdrew from Iran’s eastern neighbor after two decades, political factions as well as media affiliated with the ruling establishment in the Islamic Republic took advantage of the situation. With their now 40-year-old regional policy based on countering the US and viewing Afghanistan as a venue for pinning the American military down, the regime embarked on a widespread campaign to magnify the failure of its “long-time foe” in the eyes of the Iranian public. This narrative was aided by the presidential win of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in June, in a vote marred by the disqualification of rivals.

The idea was to further strengthen the anti-Americanism ideology in the Islamic Republic by emphasizing the notion that the Western presence in Afghanistan had yielded nothing but ineptitude, impoverishment, and corruption inspired by Occidental culture. It was also to undermine and stifle proponents of ending the long-drawn-out Iran-US hostility.

Following several years of secret talks between Iranian officials and Taliban envoys, the media, commentators, and analysts close to the principlists establishment in Iran left no stones unturned to assure the public that Iran’s policy vis-à-vis the Taliban was based on “realism.” They rejoiced at the US military pullout from Afghanistan while insisting that the Taliban had changed from the past. The objective was to paint a different image of the Taliban, a radical group who is known for advocating extremism and notorious for their bloody and cruel actions, including the murder of Iranian diplomats in 1998 in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Media close to the establishment left no stones unturned to assure the public that Iran’s policy vis-à-vis the Taliban was based on “realism.”

Those media even described the attempt by thousands of Afghans to flee the Taliban rule, marked with the tragic scenes of people rushing to a US plane taking off on the tarmac at Kabul airport before falling from mid-air, as the “fate befalling to xenophiles.” Pro-regime analysts further commented that the “embarrassing” US evacuation from Afghanistan set the precedent for the American drawdown from Iraq, Syria, and the whole region as enshrined in the strategic policy of the Islamic Republic.

Even after Kabul fell to the Taliban, the same group of media fired a diatribe at certain prominent Afghan political, cultural, and news figures as well as civil society actors. This included women who were critical of the Iranian stance on Afghanistan and who had to flee the Taliban rule, describing them as “West-affiliated seculars” that intended to democratize Afghanistan with the assistance of Western intelligence services.

 “Second Islamic Republic”

The radical Kayhan daily newspaper – close to the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – portrayed the Taliban as a “national movement” in Afghanistan filling the power void left by former President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country in August amid the group’s takeover. Resalat, another conservative newspaper, ran an editorial suggesting that Iran should assist the Taliban in a “brotherly” gesture. Resalat’s Chief Editor, Kazem Anbarlouei, asserted that the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan was a “new uprising,” noting that the Taliban could use Iran’s four-decade-old Islamic governance as a “successful model” to establish a “second Islamic Republic.”

The Iranian organs involved with the Afghanistan issue – the most prominent of which is the foreign operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Quds Force – fine-tuned their calls in state media to insist on the Islamic Republic’s policy of accepting the Taliban as “the reality of the region,” to clear the way for the recognition of a new Taliban-rule regime in Afghanistan. Failing to mention anything about the Taliban’s myriads of crimes in Afghanistan, they were accused of “whitewashing” Taliban militants of their crimes by critics of the regime.

Taliban Iran

Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban, front center, in Tehran on Jan. 31, 2021. Top Iranian officials and senior members of the Taliban have reportedly been holding secret talks for years. (AFP Photo)

Meanwhile, joined by Iranian citizens, many Afghan nationals living in Iran held protests in various cities against the Taliban and condemned Pakistan’s role in bringing them to power. But the rallies were dispersed violently by Iranian police. There was further unconfirmed news that Iran’s media watchdogs had instructed Iranian news editors to avoid using harsh words like “brutality, savagery, and crime” when talking about the Taliban.

Some journalists alleged that influential and well-heeled Iranian officials, cherry-picked pro-regime reporters and documentary makers from the likes of the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim and Fars news agencies to be dispatched to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. These outlets claimed in their reports that the Taliban had changed its discourse and that Afghanistan was experiencing calm after foreign troops’ withdrawal. In one case, a video of an Iranian documentary producer who used a condescending tone and threatening words in a conversation with an Afghan journalist in Panjshir grew into a widespread scandal.

Suppressing the Truth

The palpable silence and inaction of the ruling principlists in Iran in response to the Taliban’s crimes and conduct, has made Iranian society sensitive to the Islamic establishment’s alignment with the Taliban. This suppression of the truth about ongoing developments in Afghanistan while supporting the Taliban’s victory, elicited a torrent of harsh criticism among Iranians and even supporters of the regime, as well as prominent cultural and social Afghan figures inside and outside of Iran.

But what raised serious questions about the Iranian government’s conflicting and double-dealing policy regarding human and religious values, state interests, and societal concerns, was the Islamic Republic’s silence about the Panjshir uprising. The refusal to support the revolt in central Afghanistan that began in August and was led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of iconic anti-Taliban hero Ahmad Shah Massoud was telling. Iran’s notable muteness was in stark contrast with the hackneyed religion-inspired slogans of defending “aggrieved-oppressed nations” and “Muslims around the world” to justify backing militias in Yemen and Iraq, Hamas in Gaza, and aiding and arming the murderous Assad regime in Syria under the guise of “defending (Shia) mausoleums.”

To counter this wave of criticisms and appease public opinion, state-run news and cyber groups with their army of trolls active on social media, embarked on a campaign of spreading falsehoods and rumors to claim that Ahmad Massoud – whose assassinated father was once an ally of Iran – was dependent on foreign governments. They also referred to some Western news channels’ support for the Panjshir movement to discredit the resistance front.

Some critics are of the view that Tehran’s support for the Taliban and undercutting of the Panjshir movement proved the emptiness of Iranian slogans.

Some critics are of the view that the Islamic Republic’s support for the Taliban and undercutting of the Panjshir movement simply proved the emptiness of Iranian slogans of the past four decades. Mohsen Hessam Mazaheri, a religious researcher, drew a parallel between the Panjshir developments and the events in Palestine over the last 60 years: “[More than ever], the fall of Panjshir stripped of meaning the Islamic Republic of Iran’s slogan of defending [an] aggrieved Palestine,” Mazaheri wrote on Twitter. The Taliban’s interim cabinet further disproved Iran’s suggestion that the group had changed course, as the announced body bore no sign of so-called inclusiveness. “The principlists are making a deadly mistake. They don’t like to agree with critics out of obstinacy, they refuse to admit to their mistake, and they are being sucked down into the Taliban vortex,” reads an editorial by Abbas Abdi, prominent reformist and political analyst, in Etemad daily.  

Meanwhile, regime-affiliated media describe critics as sympathizers of the marginalized reformist movement, seeking to drag Iran into the Afghanistan battlefield without having a sufficient understanding of national interests even as they ignore the realities of US failure in Afghanistan. Critics unanimously dismiss such allegations. But the media run by military organs continue to accuse opposing voices of simplemindedness and of backing the US, saying they were unhappy with the US defeat and wanted to take advantage of the Afghans’ pains for political gains.

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Paradoxes Exposed

Iran’s contradictory justification for recognizing the Taliban while refusing to support the Panjshir movement on the grounds of national interests and realism has raised questions as to why the Islamic Republic has failed, or not been willing, to pursue national interests in the issue of hostility with the US. Particularly, why it has instead sacrificed national assets for “anti-Americanism delusions.”

Abdi believes there is room for relations with the Taliban, yet not to the extent displayed thus far. “Dialogue with the Taliban is more than necessary, but it does not require exonerating them or clearing them of any mistake. Even if the Taliban have not changed, we can hold talks with them as required by politics and pose for photos with them and shake hands with them,” he said.

He added that if the Iranian government accepted the fact that political talks might be held notwithstanding the nature of the opposite party, “it would have to reconsider its policy of refusing to talk with the US. Therefore, for the logic of prohibition of dialogue with the US to stand, they have to exonerate the Taliban regardless of facts on the ground.”

To this point, Mehdi Tadayoni, a prominent researcher, wrote on his Instagram account: “The Taliban constitute 70,000 uncivilized and uncultivated fighters, but Iranian officials insist that the Taliban should be recognized as a ‘reality on the ground.’ Then, why shouldn’t we recognize the top world military and economic power the US as a ‘reality on the ground’?!”

Interestingly, former top Iranian lawmaker Ali Motahari recently stated that Taliban officials’ remarks about adherence to regional and international treaties, willingness for “good” ties with the US, as well as compliance with their agreements to secure the Kabul airport through evacuation of Afghans and foreign troops, showed the Taliban “were more rational than us [Iran].” Motahari was alluding to the 1979 takeover of US diplomats by radical Islamist students in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution. The US Embassy in Tehran was occupied and dozens of diplomats were held hostage for 444 days, leading to the severance of Tehran-Washington ties.

There are few countries in the world with such a widening gap between policymakers and public opinion as in Iran.

There are few countries in the world with such a widening gap between policymakers and public opinion as in Iran, where foreign policy decisions are often made behind closed doors. For instance, the Islamic Republic has officially backed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria against opponents from the very beginning; supported proxy militia groups in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza; and spent billions of dollars in national oil income in these countries. Yet the public in Iran considers these adventurist policies to not be aligned with domestic interests, maintaining that they have further pushed the country into international isolation, resulted in tough sanctions, and subsequently caused the economy to fail and quality of life to fall. Such concerns and skepticism from the public have either been left unanswered or suppressed with an iron fist and reduced to silence.

Today, public opinion in Iran is widely split on the Afghanistan issue because the ruling faction has sought to spread misinformation about the Taliban and decry most criticism of the extremist Islamist group. A segment of Iran has accepted the official narrative of the events, but many others do not agree.

To be sure, even with a troubled economy and enormous Covid-19 deaths, Iranians cannot be apathetic towards pertinent developments in their neighboring country. What infuriates critics in Iran is that they are seeing their own history repeat itself in Afghanistan. Afghan men and women had been granted greater rights over the last two decades, which an extremist and armed minority is currently denying them by force, in order to establish a Taliban version of a religious government – a scenario similar to Iran’s post-revolution regime.

The coercive Iranian socio-political measures have included: gender-based exclusion from government; enforcing obligatory use of Islamic hijab for women; forming a Ministry of Promotion for Virtue and Prevention of Vice; banning women from a range of socio-political spheres as well as entry into sports stadiums; quelling anti-regime protests; beating and arresting of journalists; censoring media and cultural activities like music; and restricting publications.

Before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, for many Iranians, Afghanistan was better placed than Iran in terms of civil society development, media proliferation, freedom of press and speech, as well as political and cultural exchange with Europe and the West, as corroborated by global indicators. A case in point is the distribution in Iran of translated books printed in Afghanistan that were not authorized in Iran.

With the Taliban in power, the main loser in this tragic event is undoubtedly the Afghan people. Foreign troops have left Afghanistan after 20 years, leaving behind a bleak future for any gains achieved in the country. It is expected that the Iranian regime will further restrict the space for criticism of the Taliban, since such assessments call into question the Islamic Republic’s deep-seated articles of faith. As the evidence indicates, Iran is determined to proceed with its Afghanistan policy without any compromise with opposition and public opinion.

This will likely deepen public mistrust of the regime, polarizing society on the one hand and undermining the hard gained social capital in Afghanistan, on the other— particularly among Shia groups that had expected Iran’s assistance in preserving their interests against the Taliban.