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Iranian Conspiracy Theories
Whispers is an intelligence and analysis column focused on post-democratic Afghanistan
Iran is now openly accusing western governments, including the United States, of conspiring with and supporting ISIS-K.
“The US is using the ISIL terrorists to create insecurity in Afghanistan in order to plunge the oppressed people of Afghanistan into an unprecedented crisis by creating ethnic-religious sedition in Afghanistan and to put pressure on the Kabul-based government to yield to its demands.”
Speaker, Iranian Parliament
30 May 2022
Iran rarely misses an opportunity to ridicule the US and NATO. However, state-controlled media remained curiously tempered and pragmatic in the early months of the new Taliban regime. Unsure of how they wanted to engage with the nascent regime, the government in Tehran was cautious with their rhetoric and stance toward the Taliban, instead spending the bulk of their time making oratorical victory laps highlighting the defeat of the United States.
The US’ haphazard withdrawal, the Taliban’s rapid takeover, and the widely criticized decision to explore giving half of Afghanistan’s frozen funds to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks provided an unending supply of material for Iranian officials and journalists to focus on. This may have distracted Tehran from making any truly fiery remarks toward the Taliban; it also may have just been a way to bide time as Iran determined how it wanted to approach the new Afghan government.
A marked shift occurred after reports surfaced of alleged mistreatment of Afghan refugees at the Iranian border. The resulting outcry in Afghanistan fueled several protests in front of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul that were rife with rock throwing and violent threats, which compelled the Iranian government to forcefully remind the Afghan Charge d’Affaires in Tehran of the Taliban’s responsibility to keep diplomatic facilities secure. After these incidents, Iranian news outlets and Iranian leaders began asserting that “foreign enemies” were fomenting the crisis in an attempt to drive a wedge between Iran and Afghanistan and exacerbate divisions in Afghanistan along sectarian and ethnic lines.
In the wake of recent ISIS-K attacks on Shiite, Hazara, and Sufi communities, Tehran and several Iranian media sources are now claiming that an alliance exists between the US and ISIS-K. Specifically, they say the US is pulling the strings for ISIS-K operations and bolstering their capabilities by sharing intelligence and providing material support.
For the most part, the Taliban have not been repeating Iran’s unfounded claims. Instead, they are strategically minimizing discussions of ISIS-K operating within their borders to avoid further criticism of their lack of control over the deteriorating security situation. Furthermore, they are wary of potentially losing financial and humanitarian aid if they pick too many fights with the West. However, sources indicate that a few Taliban ministers seem eager to follow Tehran’s lead and start pointing fingers, but they have not successfully formed a consensus to make it into policy.
Notably, the Iranian Embassy in Kabul recently issued a statement condemning a recent ISIS attack, but omitting accusations of US’ involvement. This digression from the official lines coming out of Tehran may be in order to keep the peace with the host country or may reflect split opinions.
Taliban-Iranian relations have degraded in 2022. Iran’s treatment of refugees, continued cross-border clashes, and unresolved disputes over water rights have strained relations. Now, with the Iranian claims of US-ISIS cooperation, it appears Tehran is trying to inject an element of self-serving conspiracy into the relationship, possibly in an attempt to influence the stalled nuclear deal.
The Taliban don’t seem to be taking the bait. They recognize that implying a relationship between the US and ISIS-K would be a foolish tactic. It would jeopardize the Taliban’s already fanciful hopes of international recognition, and they could face a severance of financial aid that could push the regime and the Afghan economy over the edge.
The wedge between Iran and Afghanistan has existed for a long time, and our analysis indicates that the recent issues on the border coupled with attacks against Shiites have augmented those divisions. Iranian officials’ have not been successful in pulling the Taliban into their misdirection strategy and may in fact be further straining the relationship by trying to force the Taliban to act against their own interests and aggravate the West. This divergence of interests and rhetoric could further inflame the Afghan-Iranian relationship, especially if negotiations on the nuclear deal recommence.