The Role of the Mashhad Council in Maintaining the Relations between the Taliban and Iran

Hasht-E Subh  In the recent tensions between the Taliban and the Iranian government, which at one point was likely to lead to an armed conflict, the Helmand River issue was a pretext. These tensions were rooted in issues beyond water, including the visit of the Qatari Prime Minister to Kandahar. Iran’s regime and the Emirate of the Taliban were both able to draw the attention of the nations of the two countries to the false nationalist propaganda, incite people’s feelings, and at least for a short time, gain the support of some segments of the society through propaganda. One of the less discussed points is the role of Iranian-backed factions in the Taliban coalition emirate.

Iranian and Taliban officials have both admitted that the Iranian government fully backed the Taliban in the war against the republican system in Afghanistan. After handing over power to the Taliban, Iran and the Taliban group explicitly talk about their past and present cooperation. However, in those years, both parties rejected the protests of government officials and the analysts’ remarks regarding Iran’s financial, weapons, and intelligence support to the Taliban terrorist group. In the last years of the republic government, intelligence information suggested that the Iranian intelligence forces were attempting to take over a part of the Taliban by transferring the Helmand Council to Mashhad and changing its name to Mashhad Council.

The Helmand Council was created by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the second Supreme Leader of the Taliban, whose activities were mostly focused on the southwestern region of Afghanistan. Both the council and Mullah Mansour himself played a major role in providing financial resources for the Taliban war, chiefly relying on drug production and trafficking. The Iranian government also cooperated with Akhtar Mansour and his council in this “financial activity”.

Mullah Mansour’s special relationship with Iran was further exposed in 2016 when he was killed in Pakistan on his way back from a trip to Iran. Mullah Mansour, known as a renowned drug smuggler in the region, earned the nickname “Pedro Pablo” of Afghanistan and traveled to various countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran. He had complex relationships with intelligence circles, drug producers, smugglers, and terrorist networks in the region. He was killed by an American drone, perhaps with the cooperation of Pakistan, at the moment when Pakistan’s relations with Mullah Mansoor cooled due to his contacts with Iran. Now that the Taliban has returned to power, many countries in the region and the world have become shareholders of this group due to their past support and influence over parts of the Taliban group. In the meantime, the Helmand Council which subsequently was called the Mashhad Council also plays a significant role in the Taliban Emirate. The Taliban consider the continuation of its relations with Iran advantageous both due to the support they have received from Iran in the past and the sharing of interests and future cooperation.

The Helmand Council also has close relations with the current leader of the Taliban, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada. While this council does not have a major chance to cooperate with Baradar, Mullah Yaqoob, and the Haqqani network due to the fact that its intelligence base is different from their factions, Mullah Hidayatullah Badri, one of its most influential members, has great control over the economic resources of the Taliban. Mullah Badri was in charge of Mullah Muhammad Omar’s financial affairs and was one of his associates. At the same time, a number of renowned Taliban war commanders, such as Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir and Sadr Ibrahim, are among the leaders of the Helmand/Mashhad council. Mullah Badri was the finance minister of the Taliban for a while and now he has become the head of Da Afghanistan Bank (the Afghanistan Central Bank).

Qayyum Zakir is ostensibly Mullah Yaqoob’s deputy and under his control, however, in reality, he holds a position of power such that he can manipulate Mullah Yaqoob’s actions whenever Mullah Hibatullah or Iran gives him orders. At the same time, Sadr Ibrahim is the senior security deputy of Sirajuddin Haqqani in the Ministry of Interior. He has also been appointed as the head of the “Taliban Purge Commission” at the order of Mullah Hibatullah, and from such position, he can remove the trusted people of Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob from important war positions and appoint his trusted people in their place.

As mentioned above, the leaders of the Mashhad Council are closer to Mullah Hibatullah than other factions of the Taliban. They can persuade Mullah Hibatullah to accept their demands, such as maintaining good relations with Iran. Additionally, if it is necessary, by relying on military force, they can make their opponents understand that, just as Mullah Baradar and Mullah Yaqoob joined hands with the United States and some Arab countries against the wish of Iran, they also give themselves the right to defend Iran’s interests in Afghanistan for the same intelligence and financial reasons. The fact that the Taliban reacted leniently to Iran’s warnings or remained silent in some cases was the result of the Mashhad Council’s influence. The leaders of that council will strive to implement the intelligence agreements they have with Iran.

However, due to the existence of various factions and affiliations within the Taliban, it is likely that the tensions between the Taliban and Iran will reach very sensitive stages and the Helmand Council will fail to continue the friendly relations between the Taliban and Iran. But for the time being, it appears that Iranian infiltrators can maintain the balance of power within the Taliban in such a way that, on the one hand, the final agreements of the Taliban with the United States and its allies are delayed, and on the other hand, the Taliban’s relations with Iran do not collapse.

In the end, it is necessary to say that due to the multiple relations of the Taliban with various intelligence sources of the world and the region, it is not possible to maintain a balance between these relations and keep the hostile governments satisfied. In the ostensibly united Emirate of the Taliban, several factions are engaged in compromising with various countries, causing a conflict of interests and lasting tensions inside the Taliban. It is possible that these contradictions and differences caused by the relations between the powerful members of the Taliban and the hostile governments will become one of the main factors in the collapse of their emirate.

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