Last August, I attended a conference in Kashmir. On the way to Srinagar, in the hilly areas of the Kashmir valley, I saw billboards of Iran’s supreme leaders Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei lining the streets. As a Shia from Afghanistan, this reminded me of years ago when I was a child, and Ruhollah Khomeini’s picture was hanging on the walls of my home while my uncle, who had worked in a brick-making factory in Esfahan, Iran, would recite Khomeini’s sayings and poems. I grew up in a prominently Shiite-dominated area west of Kabul, where, on certain auspicious days, the roads of Kabul would be covered with pictures, billboards, flags and Shiite religious texts mostly printed in Iran.
After the fall of the Taliban in post-2001, violence targeting Afghanistan’s Shia population declined. That persisted until the Day of Ashura 2011, when more than 63 Shiites were killed in twin suicide bombings in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. Now, concerns about emerging sectarian violence are again rising due to the country’s increasing Islamic State (ISIS) presence and the ever-increasing series of kidnappings and murders targeting the Hazara Shia community.
Religious tensions has surged in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, along with 46 other political prisoners. Following the executions, angry crowds attacked the Saudi consulate in Mashahad and its embassy in Tehran. In response, the Saudi government cut diplomatic relations with Iran, with several Saudi allies following suit.
Many Afghans have expressed concern about the possible impact of these events on Afghan society. However, the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) has been cautious in its reaction to the spike in tensions. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah has been one of a number of officials to visit Tehran.
Amid all the shifts in Tehran’s policy on Afghanistan, two motives can be identified: first, the desire to make its mark as a major advocate for Shiite affairs, and second, consideration of its national interests. Indeed, Tehran has given strong support to Afghan Shiites, who have been pushed under Iran’s ideological umbrella and promoted as representatives of Iranian interests. Meanwhile, Iran’s national interest can be seen as both exporting its political ideology – government by clerics – into Afghanistan and containing Salafism and Sunni extremism within their own territories through religious conflicts and the use of Shiite communities as proxies. In Afghanistan, the local clients for Iranian provocations in the Sunni-Shia schism are religious leaders and clergy who mobilize the communities’ religious grievances to radicalize the traditional moderate Shiite communities of the Sunni-dominated country.
But Iran has failed to develop a coherent strategy that could have served its interests in the long term, and this has resulted in the recent distrust on the Afghan side. Frustrated by Iranian intervention through religious figures, the younger members of Shiite communities have begun to protest, “This is Kabul, Not Tehran.”
Iran and Afghanistan share a 900 km border. Since the outbreak of the Afghanistan conflict, millions of refugees have crossed this border, and more than 1.5 million Afghans currently live in Iran. Iran’s sponsorship of religious madrasas and clerics in Afghanistan, however, has not been ignored by its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. This was made evident when Saudi Arabia started building the Malik Abdullah Islamic Center, the largest Islamic madrasa in the region, in Kabul. This in turn stoked interreligious debate among youth on social media, who seem to prefer infrastructure over religious symbols. One Facebook user wrote on her timeline, “We need more hospitals and roads not madrasas.” The Iran-Saudi symbol rivalry – an extension of the Shia-Sunni divide – is intensifying the radicalization of religious communities that in Afghanistan have traditionally coexisted in relative harmony.
Earlier, in May 2009, the Ministry of Culture and Information of Afghanistan disposed of 25 tons of books, which had been brought in by a private publisher at the Afghan-Iran border. Among them were the Nahjul-ul-Balagha, a collection of letters and speeches of Ali, the fourth caliph and the first imam of Shiites, and the Usul-e-Kafi, a revered Shiite book. The ministry called these texts ethnically and religiously controversial. Needless to say, the inflow of Shiite religious texts has concerned some Sunni radicals.
In May 2015, a political organization, Afghan Milli Ghorzang launched a protest attended by more than 100 people that ended in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul. The protestors were calling for an end to the cultural invasion of Afghanistan by Iran. The group called for surveillance of the activities of the Iranian embassy and officials traveling between Kabul and Tehran. Throughout the protest they shouted “Death to Iran” and accused the neighbor of meddling in Afghanistan’s educational media. Tamadoon, a television channel that regularly broadcasts Iranian shows and another channel, Rah Farda, which belongs to the Shiite-Hazara leader Mohammad Muhaqeq, have been the focus of attacks by protestors. Many believe, however, that Iran’s true influence comes from within the Afghan government.
Conspiratorial accusations were lobbed at the Karzai regime in October 2010 after former chief of staff Umar Daudzai was spotted accepting from by the Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan Feda Hussain Maliki a large plastic bag filled with euros. The president confirmed the allegations and openly admitted to receiving regular cash payments from Iran. Daudzai was allegedly the coordinator of these financial dealings but it was not clear whether Mr. Daudzai took any of the money himself or whether he was only a conduit.
Karzai’s closest aide (who later served as Minister of the Interior), formerly belonged to the insurgent group the Islamic Party (Hezb-i-Islami), the leader of which Gulbuddin Hekmatyar lived for long time under the protection of the Iranian government. The hardline Islamic group fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s and is still fighting NATO forces and the Afghan government. Daudzai has denied any wrongdoing.
While Karzai maintained a friendly relationship with Iran, Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani has supported the Saudi-led coalition attacks on Yemen’s Houthi insurgency, which undermines the Iran-Afghan neighborly relationship. However, Ghani did travel to Tehran in April to try and bring some balance to Iran and Saudi’s escalating rivalry in Afghanistan.
Tehran’s power projection in Afghanistan through Shiite symbolism has turned Shiite communities into vulnerable religious islands, making them outsiders within their own country. Shias form around 20 percent of Afghanistan’s total population. Groups with competing religious affiliations like the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islamic, Lashkar-e-Jangavi, and now ISIS have made Afghanistan increasingly volatile. Iran-sponsored Shia propaganda only exacerbates this problem. Even with its propaganda war and government support, Iran has struggled to win popular support, perhaps because the community doesn’t see those cash payments. Iran has shown minimal interest in the development and economic prosperity of Shia communities. Since 2000, it has undertaken very few developmental projects in central Afghanistan, a region dominated by Shia-Hazara Muslims, who are the first victims of sectarian violence. Iran’s development aid has been concentrated mostly in western Afghanistan, where the majority of people are Persian-speaking Sunnis. There, Iran constructed the Herat-Islamqala Highway, which connects Afghanistan’s western provinces to Mashhad in the east of Iran.
An apparent duality of symbolism and development is surfacing in Iranian’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan: religious texts, pictures, flags and billboards for Shiites. Weapons and training for the Taliban. Roads, electricity and water for Sunni Persian-speakers. Time will tell if this approach contains anti-Iranian antagonism within hostile Sunni-dominated countries, where Salafism and Wahhabis extremism is growing. For the Shiite communities of Sunni-dominated countries, however, these symbols ensure that they are branded as Iranian pawns, to face continued harassment and violence.
Rustam Ali Seerat is pursuing an MA in international relations at South Asian University in New Delhi.