Features | Politics | Security | Central Asia

Tehran’s Designs on Afghanistan

Evidence from Herat and elsewhere suggests a growing – and at times deadly – Iranian influence over its eastern neighbor.

The bullet mark on the left side of Ali Asghar Yaghobi’s chest is still very fresh, the wound not yet fully healed. The doctors at the local medical center in Herat have removed the bandages, but shrapnel remains etched in his neck. It was only luck that saved Yaghobi; the Herat Hospital is the largest medical center in the city but is not equipped to perform complicated surgery. Fortunately, the bullet just missed vital organs and Yaghobi survived the attack, which apparently involved a gun with a suppressor.

The attack occurred in the afternoon of February 22, when the 30-year-old journalist was on his way to Mojhda radio station in Herat, where he has presented a daily evening show for the last four years. Yaghobi used the program, called “Tazyana” (meaning “a whip to arouse the conscience of the people”), to question certain conservative Shia practices and the rising influence of Iran in Herat society. He was also associated with a foreign crew documenting the cultural and political influence of Iran in Afghanistan.

Afghan Journalist Centre writes that the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Yaghobi has told The Diplomat that the “modus operandi used by the attackers is not employed by the Taliban, but is the handiwork of Iranian intelligence active in Herat through fundamentalist Shia groups.” His claim was supported by local intelligence officials, who demanded anonymity. Yaghobi says that past attacks on creative people and journalists have been carried out by these local groups.

Because of its geographical proximity and religious bonding, Shia Iran’s influence is visible throughout western Afghanistan. The overarching presence of the large neighbor is evident not only in the goods on sale in Herat, Farah and other provinces, but also in the religious and cultural spheres.

“It’s very suffocating the way Iran controls your life in Herat,” says Yaghobi. “For the outside world it's the Taliban that is disrupting Afghanistan, but the fact of the matter is that Iran is also playing a very negative role in destabilizing Afghanistan, in radicalizing Shia society and using that to serve its narrow political interests.”

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Prominent Afghan writer Taqi Bakhtiari, a Shia himself, agrees. He blames Tehran for injecting fundamentalism into Shia society in Afghanistan. Bakhtiari has been forced to live in hiding since publication of his novel Gomnami (Anonymity), which tells of a young Afghan boy who goes to Iran to learn Islamic teaching but is sexually assaulted in the seminary. The incident abruptly neuters the young boy’s religious zeal and he returns to his homeland, where he starts reading secular texts and loses faith in established religion. For this work, which Bakhtiari claims is based on real story, he has been declared persona non grata in Afghanistan. Facing a serious threat to his life, Bakhtiari has gone underground with his family. When The Diplomat met him, he was living with eight members of his family in a cramped one bedroom accommodation. He has approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees seeking asylum in the West.

The novelist remains very bitter about Iran and blames “Afghans acting at the behest of Tehran” behind the threats to his life. He says that the “Iranian regime is trying to expand its theocratic dominion and for the last three decades Iran has been using Shiites against Sunni and thousands of Hazaras who are mostly Shias have lost their lives in this game.”

Listen to the Friday sermon at the Shia center in Heart, and Bakhitari’s claim seems credible. The mosque located in the center’s basement was packed on April 19, when The Diplomat visited. More than five thousand people had gathered to listen to Sayed Baqer Hasaniyan, chief imam of the biggest Shia mosque in the province. In an address lasting more than an hour, the imam blamed the West “for keeping Islamic countries backward and destroying their culture.” He called upon all Islamic people “to unite and fight together against the Western world for interfering and intruding into Islamic countries.” He also exhorted people “to shun music and ask women to behave according to the Islamic law and culture.”

Right next to the Islamic center is an old mosque, currently being renovated with the help of Iran. Once completed, it will have capacity for more than 8000 people.

Not far from the Shia center is Taqi-e-Abul Fazl library, one of the biggest in Herat. The majority of the books on display have come from Iran and narrate Iranian folk tales and stories about the Islamic movement. Very little literature about Afghanistan’s history and way of life is available. Some bookshelves display jihadi materials and have books on holy war.

The influence of Iran is also visible in the marketplace, where the majority of goods are Iranian-made. Some of the shopkeepers seem less than happy with the growing tentacles of their western neighbor.

“Iran is destroying our culture and imposing its narrow interpretation of Islam on us. We are Afghans and want to preserve our way of life,” says one shopkeeper in Khurasan market. This anger is shared by many on the streets of Herat.

“Besides Pakistan, Iran is the most disruptive element in Afghanistan. It wants to control us, which is not good, and the problem is that the Afghan government cannot act against its neighbor,” says a vegetable seller.

Recently, there have been several reports about Afghani concern over Iranian influence, with some experts expressing grave concern about Iran’s increasing penetration of Afghan society, and its use of Afghanistan as a way to strike at Western interests.

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Omar Sharifi, director of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in Kabul, disagrees, arguing that “Iranian influence remains strong among more religiously conservative Shiite groups at best, with nominal to very little influence over other groups. Iran can be a destabilizing element at the local level in the Afghan conflict, but its ability to create a major crisis for Afghan government is shrinking due to Tehran’s isolation at the world level.”

At a conference attended by The Diplomat, Herat Governor Dr. Daud Shah Saba said that, “Iranian influence is because of geography, but yes Afghan forces have captured an arms consignment at the Iranian border and they have also recovered Iranian-made weapons from the hands of the Taliban.”

Iran thus remains an enigma for Afghanistan. But some reports suggest that Tehran is trying to fill the void that will be created by the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2014, and is cultivating closer relations with the Taliban, funding politicians and media outlets.

Meanwhile, Yaghobi has fled Herat, fearing for his life. He hopes to start anew in another country, somewhere he and his family might feel safe from fundamentalist groups.