The Iranian and Afghan delegations to the 136th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union have had acrimonious exchanges over Tehran’s support for the Taliban, the Iranian media reports. According to Iran’s Tabnak News Agency, Afghanistan’s representative to the IPU summit had accused the Iranian government of having s with and providing assistance to the Taliban militants in Afghanistan – prompting an angry reaction from the Iranian team. “Today [April 3], Afghanistan’s representative made unfounded claims about Iran’s support to the Taliban at this summit. The allegation that Iran has ties with and supports the Taliban is astounding and laughable,” said Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh Imenabadi, who heads the Iranian delegation at the IPU meeting being held in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. “This allegation is made while Iran has been among the main victims of the Taliban,” he added, referring to the killing of Iranian government officials in northern Afghanistan by the Taliban in late 1990s.

The Iranian lawmaker cautioned the Afghan officials that they “should abstain from illogical and damaging remarks and should not be influenced ill-wishers of relations between the two countries.” Imenabadi also noted that Iran has been hosting millions of Afghan refugees over the past decades and warned that such allegations would not benefit Afghanistan and its interests.

Comment: Iran’s support for the Taliban is not new. Since the 2001 U.S. intervention that toppled the Taliban regime, Iran has played both sides of the Afghan conflict. While Tehran has fostered close relations with Kabul and has contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) and its elite Quds Force have trained, sheltered, funded and armed Taliban militants to under the U.S.-led stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and pressure the Kabul government for political concessions. But Iran’s support for the Taliban has been measured and calculated in order to avoid a strong response from Kabul or Washington. 

Afghan and U.S. officials, however, say that the Iranian government has recently deepened its ties with the Taliban leadership, has set up military training camps inside Iran, and is providing more sophisticated weapons to the terrorists, mainly in western and southern Afghan provinces. What has made the Afghan government and its allies particularly worried lately is that Iran has teamed up with Russia to support the Taliban against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Last month, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the head of the U.S. military's European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander for NATO, warned that "I've seen the influence of Russia of late, increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban." And in February, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said Russia and Iran were supporting the Taliban in part to undermine the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Senior Afghan officials have expressed similar concerns. “We have received [intelligence] reports that Iran has obtained some weapons from Russia and delivered them to the Taliban. We cannot confirm it 100 percent. But intelligence reports show that the Taliban receive training inside Iran,” Afghanistan’s Ariana News quoted Gulbahar Mujahid, the chief security commander of Farah Province, in a report published on March 23.

While Afghan leaders are always vocal about Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, they have largely been silent about the Iran’s ties with the terrorist group. But as Iran’s support to the Taliban is expanding, Afghan leaders – particularly members of parliament and security officials – have recently become more vocal in their criticism of Iran. The latest exchange of tense words between Afghan and Iranian lawmakers are just one example.

Imenabadi is right in that the Taliban is not a natural ally to the Islamic Republic. Taliban is a reactionary Sunni militant group that massacred Afghan Shiites in late 1990s, and Iran and the Taliban almost went to war two decades ago. But Tehran now sees the presence of the American troops along its eastern border as a bigger threat, and is therefore helping the Taliban to expedite the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. And in this endeavor, Tehran and Moscow are pursuing a similar objective. The Russian ambassador to Kabul recently said that Moscow supports the Taliban call for American troops to leave Afghanistan. A secondary common objective for Tehran and Moscow is to use their leverage with the Taliban to prevent the emergence of the Islamic State from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and threatening the security of Iran and Central Asia.