The onset of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has sent shockwaves to the Islamist regime in neighbouring Iran. Iran’s qualms over the rise of the Sunni-dominated militant group at its doorstep are quite legitimate and cogent. The Taliban has exacerbated instability in the already violence-ridden region and now, as the Afghan crisis seemingly descends into a humanitarian crisis, chances are high that a refugee crisis could soon engulf the entire region, including Iran.
Moreover, a Sunni-dominated Taliban could easily fuel the tensions in the Afghan-Iranian relations on sectarian grounds. Hence, when the fall of Kabul at the hands of raging Talibanis became evident at the beginning of the month, the Iranians sprung into action to send some tough signals to the rampaging Talibani rulers.
On August 6, Iran clamped down on the fuel supplies to Afghanistan arguing that the unfolding crisis had made it difficult for the Iranian traders to carry on the business activities in the region. The immediate fallout of the Iranian actions was the skyrocketing fuel prices across Afghanistan. The price of gasoline reached $900 per ton, sparking fears among the Talibanis that this could fuel the civil uprising against the extremist group in the country.
Afghanistan lacks domestic refining capacity and relies on imports for fulfilling its energy needs. In 2019, Turkmenistan, Iran and the U.S. were the top three fuel providers to the country. Last year, Afghanistan imported 274,000 tons of Iranian gasoil and 80,000 tons of gasoline. Hence, the Taliban was left in disarray when Iran decided to rein in the fuel supplies to Afghanistan.
The fuel crisis could very well worsen the financial woes of the country. It holds the potential to fuel the anti-Taliban sentiments in the country. Moreover, it could also take a massive toll upon an already fragile Afghan economy. Resultantly, the Taliban has now requested the Iranian chamber of commerce to start exporting the fuel to Afghanistan.
“The Taliban sent messages to Iran saying: ‘You can continue the exports of petroleum products’,” Hamid Hosseini, a board member and spokesman of Iran’s Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Products Exporters’ Union, in Tehran, told Reuters on Tuesday. The Taliban has also decided to cut tariffs on fuel imports from Iran and other neighbouring states given the dire situation in the country.
The prospect of an Iran-engineered fuel crisis in the country is not the only thing threatening the Taliban’s fragile sway over the country. It is also reported that Iran could be mobilizing its Fatemiyoun brigade on the Afghan border to avoid any significant security threat emanating from the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Fatemiyoun brigade is an Iran-backed militant organisation that is comprised of Shia Afghan refugees in Iran and members of the Hazara Shia minority inside Afghanistan. When the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s, it started targeting Hazara Afghans that prompted them to seek refuge in Iran. Iranian government found an opportunity in their crisis and offered them citizenship, employment, legal protection and payments in return for their services in the Fatemiyoun brigade.
For years, Iran reaped the benefits of building up this militant organisation by deploying the Fatemiyoun fighters for securing Iranian interests in Iraq and Syria. Estimates put the number of Fatemiyoun troops Iran deployed to Syria, to fight ISIS on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, as high as 20,000 or even 50,000. However, as the violence in Afghanistan reaches Iran’s doorstep, Iran has scrambled to mobilize the Fatemiyoun brigade to take care of any potential threat rising out of the Taliban’s misadventure in the East.
The Taliban is striving for garnering legitimacy from the world and it might need Iran’s diplomatic support to cement its rule over the country. Iran could leverage its influence over Afghanistan’s energy supply chain against the Taliban and pull the strings on the militant group if the situation goes out of Iranian control.
The bloodthirsty Fatemiyoun brigade and the prospects of an Iranian-fuelled civil uprising in the country have sent the shivers down the spine of the Taliban and now it has resorted to pleading before the Iranian regime to continue the fuel supplies. It took Iran just 18 days to bring the Taliban rulers to their knees and now, it could even force the Sunni Islamist group to shred off its animosity towards the Shi’ite nation and reconcile its ties with the Shia minority of the country.