The relationship between Iran and the Taliban’s central leadership has long been deeply fraught; when the Taliban was running Afghanistan in the 1990s, the two countries came to the brink of war.
U.S. officials have for years accused Iran of fueling the Afghanistan war by providing training and sophisticated weapons to its favored insurgent commanders, although they have described Tehran’s role as minimal compared with other regional players. There have been few signs of senior-level contact between the Taliban and Iran.
Hosting Taliban members at the Tehran conference might have been an attempt by Iran to mend ties as it becomes clear that the group will be a major power broker in Afghanistan after the United States withdraws its last combat troops as scheduled in 2014, analysts said. U.S. officials have launched their own initiatives to talk to the Taliban, to little avail.
“Iran considers itself a regional player with a legitimate stake in Afghanistan, and it doesn’t want to see progress that runs contrary to its political interests,” said Michael Semple, who has decades of experience in Afghanistan as a diplomat and a scholar. “If the price of Iran having a role in the next step is dealing with the Taliban, then they are prepared to do it.”
Reports of the Tehran meeting came as U.S. efforts to promote a dialogue between Afghanistan and its eastern neighbor, Pakistan, appeared to falter Thursday. The Afghan government canceled a meeting with its Pakistani counterpart that was scheduled for next week, part of a U.S.-promoted effort begun early this year to assuage long-standing distrust between the two countries, U.S. officials said.
The Obama administration has asked Pakistan to assist the reconciliation process by eliminating Taliban havens in its territory and pressing the insurgents toward negotiations. But recent high-profile attacks in Afghanistan by the Pakistan-based Haqqani group — for which the United States has publicly held Pakistan at least indirectly responsible — have stirred Afghan antagonism. U.S. officials confirmed the cancellation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, but said they anticipated that the break in dialogue would be only temporary.
An unusual opening
The Islamic Awakening conference in Tehran was organized by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in the nation’s policies. The conference, held in mid-September, drew more than 700 scholars and Islamist political figures from around the world.