washington — Since the Taliban seized control in August 2021, China, Iran and Russia have been steadily courting Afghanistan’s de facto government for influence. The three countries have kept their embassies open in Kabul and were among the first to hand over Afghan embassies to the Taliban at home.
Last month, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran were the most high-profile participants at the Taliban’s first conference on regional cooperation in Kabul.
But what are the real prospects of China, Russia, Iran and the Taliban cooperating in the region?
Analysts tell VOA that while Beijing, Moscow and Tehran may be united in a common goal to oppose the U.S. in the region, that is perhaps the only area where their interests align, analysts say.
“Anti-Americanism is the one idea” that brings China, Iran and Russia together, said Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
He told VOA that Tehran, Moscow and Beijing “want to push the United States out of Eurasia and Central Asia … [but] how much can they on the operational level cooperate? That’s a big question.”
He added that “anti-Americanism” alone cannot keep the partnership together as there “is nothing ideological to bring them together.”
According to a newly released U.S. State Department’s strategy document, China, Iran and Russia seek “strategic and economic advantage, or at a minimum, to put the U.S. at a disadvantage.”
“China, Iran and Russia have cultivated very close ties with the Taliban,” said Nilofar Sakhi, a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, adding that they are trying to “have political and economic influence in the region.”
Despite close ties, none of the three countries has formally recognized the Taliban’s government and their interests in the region all differ.
Late last month, China was the first country to formally accept the credentials of the Taliban’s ambassador.
Some former diplomats and analysts say the move was akin to formal recognition. Sun Yun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington does not agree.
China still has to “formally extended political recognition to the Taliban’s government,” Sun told VOA. Even so, compared to Western countries, China has established “very close” relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“China adopts a pragmatic approach in Afghanistan,” said Sun, adding that early on Beijing realized that the U.S.-backed former Afghan government did not have “the popular support to continue” governing Afghanistan.
Beijing had been cultivating ties with the Taliban for years before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
Sun said that “what has happened in the past two and a half years substantiated that assessment that the Taliban regime is not going anywhere.”
She added that security, economic and political factors are “all part of a broader consideration that comes to the foundation of China’s policy toward Afghanistan.”
For China, one key concern is about any breach of militancy from Afghanistan into its western region of Xinjiang.
Beijing also has economic interests in Afghanistan, including extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative, to Afghanistan and investing in minerals in Afghanistan.
China has also been vocal in criticizing the U.S. and NATO for freezing Afghanistan’s assets and “leaving the Afghan people in a serious humanitarian crisis” in the country.
Though Iran has not formally recognized the Taliban, it handed over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban in February 2023.
The Middle East Institute’s Vatanka said that the Iranian regime has not recognized the Taliban because of some bilateral issues, including border security and water distribution.
Last year, tensions between Iran and the Taliban over the Helmand River’s flow of water escalated to a deadly clash, which killed two Iranian security guards and one Taliban border guard.
Iran and the Taliban have had complicated relations in the past.
During the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Iran was supporting the forces fighting against the Taliban, particularly after the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif in 1998.
“It is still too early for the Iranians to forget what the Taliban was” when it was in power in the 1990s, said Vatanka.
Full of contradiction
Like Iran, Russia was another country that supported forces fighting the Taliban during the civil war in the 1990s.
Ghaus Janbaz, a former Afghan diplomat to Moscow, told VOA that Moscow’s policy toward Afghanistan has been “full of contradictions” in recent years.
Janbaz added that Russia is politically supporting the Taliban, but at the same time, its “military and security officials criticize the Taliban and cite an uptick in terrorist activities in Afghanistan.”
He said that before the Taliban’s takeover, Moscow had diplomatic relations with the former Afghan government, but it also supported “the Taliban at all the levels.”
“It is similar now. Russia has ties with the Taliban, but an anti-Taliban leader was invited to Moscow,” Janbaz said. “They say it was not an invitation by the government, but nothing happens without the approval of the government in Russia.”
An Afghan anti-Taliban leader, Ahmad Masoud, participated in a conference on Afghanistan in Russia in November 2023.
Janbaz says that despite Moscow’s close ties with the Taliban, “I do not think that in the near future, Moscow will extend recognition to the Taliban’s regime.”
He said that similar to China and Iran, Russia’s policy toward the Taliban is driven by regional geopolitics.
“Tactically they might have an alliance against the West, but there are strategic differences” between these countries, Janbaz said.
This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.