The sheer violence of the Taliban's first reign in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s was such that many analysts now fear the same will happen again, with potentially horrific consequences both for neighboring countries and the wider world. One fear is that Afghanistan could again become a hotbed for international terrorism, as it was when Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda planned 9/11 from the country. But there are other concerns, such as that the Taliban could incite Salafist groups within Iran and weaken the regional clout of the Islamic Republic by allying with Tehran's traditional enemies. The ratcheted-up opium cultivation since the Taliban took over again is also a worry.
A new study published in the Iranian quarterly State Studies, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, has laid out precisely what the regime is afraid of vis-a-vis a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Entitled The Re-Emergence of the Taliban and Its Impact on the National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it features the views of 97 different Iranian university professors and foreign affairs experts.
Among the concerns cited in the report was the perceived widening of a “religious divide,” prompting a predicted “increased sense of disenfranchisement” and "unrest" on the part of Baluchis and Sunni Muslims in South Khorasan, eastern Iran. The participants also warned about the Taliban's "promotion of Salafist ideology" and augmented use of Iran as a drug corridor.
Countering these threats, the participants said, would require the Iranian government to address and resolve economic problems inside their own country, particularly along Iran's eastern border. The experts also advised the government to put Iran’s eastern military forces on alert and to ask the Supreme National Security Council to step in and coordinate responses to developments in the east.
Other academic publications in Iran have shed further light on the regime's anxieties regarding the Taliban. An article in the December 2021 issue of the Expediency Council's Scientific Journal of Strategy stated: “Although Tehran has been interacting with the Taliban, it is unsure if the behavior of the movement will be predictable or not. Tehran may be concerned that the Taliban could act as a proxy for some regional and extra-regional powers, and endanger the security interests of the Islamic Republic.”
It went on: “In addition, Iran has serious concerns about the possibility of the emergence of extremist and terrorist groups in Afghanistan... Afghanistan shares more than 900 kilometers of border with Iran, and any insecurity or infiltration by the Taliban or other groups can have a direct impact on Iran's national security." Another important point raised in the same study was that Tehran "coexisting" with the Taliban could provoke disquiet among the large population of Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran.
Back in January 2020, before the Taliban's return to power, the Iranian quarterly South-West Asian Studies had also carried an article entitled Security Challenges in Sistan and Baluchistan Due to the Presence of the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. It relayed the same fears as the experts in the new survey, suggesting the Taliban would "incite" local Sunnis and destabilize the province.
For the past three decades, the lack of security on Iran’s eastern borders has been a constant source of unease and the return of the Taliban has only intensified this. While droughts continue to batter farmers in eastern Iran and Afghanistan, the tussle over the waters of the Helmand River has made the situation even worse. Drug trafficking, terrorism conducted by groups based in Afghanistan and the activities of extremist Sunni groups are other important issues for which the Islamic Republic has yet to find a satisfactory solution.