Taliban takeover leaves Iran and Turkey fearing refugee influx

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The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has left regional heavyweights Iran and Turkey with a headache — both countries may see an opportunity to boost their influence but neither wants a further influx of refugees.

This is especially the case right now as both countries are battling the coronavirus pandemic and facing economic difficulties.

Analysts say everything depends on the unknown factor — whether the Taliban present a more moderate stance that allows for international cooperation or they return to the unbridled extremism that led to their overthrow in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“The situation is a huge risk for Turkey, there is no doubt. Iran will also stand to lose if the Taliban returns to its old ways and provides a safe haven” for Islamist extremists, Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told AFP.

Iran and Turkey both risk seeing substantial inflows of refugees, many of whom cross from Iran into Turkey in the hope of reaching Europe.

Both already host large refugee populations — 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey and 3.5 million Afghans in Iran — and tolerance at home is running out.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Iran hard, pushing the sanctions-battered country further into crisis, while in Turkey the economic growth that was always the bulwark of Erdogan’s popularity has faded away.

Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan said last week that he was prepared to meet the Taliban leadership in a bid to secure peace while Iran’s new hardline President Ebrahim Rasi said the US military “defeat” in Afghanistan was a chance to bring peace to the country.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu talked of “positive messages” coming from the Taliban on protection for civilians and foreigners, expressing hope they would follow through with positive actions.

– ‘Ticking bomb’ –

But analysts say the Taliban takeover has robbed Erdogan of a strategic card he was eager to play — an offer to provide military security at Kabul airport that might have improved relations with US President Joe Biden.

“The whole Turkish mission is in jeopardy as well as the idea of using Kabul airport as leverage in relaunching Turkey’s relationship with Washington,” Aydintasbas said, adding it was “hard to imagine” the Taliban letting Turkey control the airport.

“A few days ago this looked like a golden opportunity for Turkey. Now it is a huge ticking bomb.”

Meanwhile, “the most pressing issue” for Erdogan is the possible influx of refugees from Afghanistan at a time of growing unrest in Turkey over the long-term presence of Syrians in the country, she said.

Aydintasbas said neighboring countries “have no idea what Taliban 2.0 will look like”.

“If the Taliban has become more moderate then Turkey could engage with it,” she said.

The International Crisis Group argued in a research note that the Taliban’s diplomatic engagement “has shifted to a regionally focused approach”, emphasizing dialogue with Iran, Russia, Central Asian states, and China.

– US-led stability –

Rouzbeh Parsi of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs said US forces leaving the region was Iran’s stated goal, but their departure was far from entirely welcome for Tehran.

“US support for the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq has also been helpful for Iran in that it ensured a certain stability and US did the heavy lifting,” he said.

Overwhelmingly Shiite Iran, which shares a more than 900-kilometer (550-mile) border with Afghanistan, appeared keen to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Sunni Taliban, he said.

“Iran has for some time, pragmatic as always, accepted that the Taliban are not going to disappear and that no outsider will be able to militarily defeat them,” he said.

“Iran is a country heavily beset by Covid, corruption, and a faltering economy. The ability and willingness to take on more Afghan refugees is probably not great.”

Parsi added that Iran’s future relationship with the new rulers in Kabul “hinges on the pragmatism of the Taliban”, noting that Tehran would pay particular attention to the wellbeing of the mainly Shiite, Persian-speaking Hazara minority.

Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Turkey, said Europe was anxiously watching the potential migrant flows after a million people reached its shores mainly through Turkey in 2015 when the Syrian conflict was at its peak.

“Handling this emergency will require a degree of confident humanitarian cooperation between the EU and Iran-Turkey, which will be difficult to achieve,” he told AFP.

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