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ANALYSIS: Iran's great game antagonises natural Afghan allies

Iran has for decades courted Shia Hazaras, and hosts many refugees. But its policies in Syria and warming to the Taliban have upset many
Afghan men surround the Shia Karte Sakhi shrine in Kabul, 20 March 2016 (AFP)

KABUL - Karte Seh in western Kabul can feel like a slice of Iran tucked away in the Afghan capital. An imposing madrassa, built by Iran in 2006, dominates with its Persian domes and arches. Women eschew the Afghan burqa for Iranian-style chadors, and Shia imams preach to congregations drawn from the area's Persian-speaking Hazara community.

Iran’s influence has long been felt in the area and its political offices. Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s pushed many Hazara to seek out Tehran as a counterweight to the onslaught of the Sunni Taliban, and Iran hosts millions of Hazara refugees and migrants who fled the fighting looking for a better life.

But resentment towards Iran among Hazara has begun to grow, as Tehran apparently warms to the Taliban to check the rise of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, and its as-yet unstated policy of sending Afghan refugees, reportedly sometimes against their will, to fight for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

“Foreign interference is not good for Afghans. Iran and Pakistan only want to destroy Afghanistan,” Syed Najibullah Rahim, a 30-year-old Hazara from Kabul, told Middle East Eye. “They have their own political motives. Iran is America’s enemy and their only aim is to destabilise Afghanistan.” Fears are that if these tensions mount, Iran would lose its standing not only in Afghanistan but across the region. 

Fighting in a foreign land

Reports that Iran has been sending young Hazara to fight on behalf of Assad have been making the rounds for years, but according to Human Rights Watch, since 2013 Iran has been luring impoverished Hazara refugees with promises of money and permanent residency rights.

Iran denies preying on the vulnerable and says it lends unofficial support to "volunteers", such as the Afghan-dominated Fatemiyoun Brigade, to defend Shia sites in Syria and Iraq against Sunni militants.

However, a large number of Hazara in Afghanistan claim that they know someone who has gone to fight - and only after being coerced.

Qurban Ali, a 39-year-old Hazara living in Kabul, claims he knows a family whose son went to Iran looking for work, but was instead sent to Syria. According to Ali, the family was recently invited by Iranian officials to attend their son’s funeral.

“They told the family, ‘Your son has been martyred in Syria’,” he said.

While the officials claimed he was in Syria voluntarily, Ali said he went after the promise by Iran's Revolutionary Guard of a residence permit.

On Monday, Iran passed a law allowing the government to grant citizenship to the families of foreigners killed while fighting for Tehran, saying that “the government [could now] grant Iranian citizenship to the wife, children and parents of foreign martyrs who died on a mission... during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and afterwards".

That, however, has been seen as a message to those who refuse to fight.

The interests of Shia Hazara parties and Iran do not fully overlap. 

Thomas Ruttig, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network

While most Hazara political parties have been careful to not accuse Iran, Ali Amiri, the political secretary of the pro-Iran Hezb-e-Wahdat Islami Mardum-e-Afghanistan Party, led by prominant Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, said coercing Hazaras into fighting was a human rights violation and urged Afghanistan authorities to probe the issue.

According to Thomas Ruttig, a senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network, politically active Hazaras are growing increasingly concerned about Iran’s behaviour.

“The interests of Shia Hazara parties and Iran do not fully overlap,” he said. 

And the rift over Syria is only part of the problem.

The enemy of my enemy...

Hazaras are the largest Shia minority in Afghanistan and, according to different estimates, make up between 10 to 20 percent of the population, although there has been no official census since 1979.

Iran began supporting Afghan mujahideen groups made up of Persian-speaking minorities, such as the Hazaras, against the Soviets in the 1980s and later against the Taliban, a group made up almost exclusively of Pashtun Sunnis.

Iran almost went to war with the Taliban in 1998, after 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed following an attack on Iran’s consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.

However, in recent years, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group has led many to believe that this rivalry could be turning on its head, with Iran viewing the Taliban as a possible bulwark against the militants.

Rutting said the rise of IS was possibly now the "driving force" behind Tehran's relationship with Afghanistan.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran has been providing funding, ammunition and even training to the Taliban. Last month, the Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan officially confirmed that his country has contact with the Taliban for what he termed “control and evaluation of security situation".

Iran has previously denied any contacts with the militant group that ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until the US-led invasion in 2001 and has once again tried to expand its influence following the drawdown of international troops.

“There is no love lost between Iran and the Taliban,” Ruttig said. “There are multiple strings of relationships and Iran wants to keep all its options open."

He added that there was no firm proof of weapons transfers to the Taliban.

Too close for comfort

The relationship between the Hazara and Iran has been growing more complicated for years. While all Hazara factions chose to work with the US after its invasion in 2001, some continued to be linked to Iran, with allegations that Iran finances certain Hazara MPs and pushes them to adopt anti-Western stances.

Many Hazara politicians privately admit that being seen as too close to Iran can be politically dangerous, but also believe that it is important to retain some kind of ties. “It is not like all Hazaras are ardent supporters of Iran,” Ruttig said.

“The resentment has been there for a long time.

“This admission [of contact with the Taliban] by the Iranian ambassador will create more concerns among many Shia Hazara leaders. For a long time, these leaders have not been speaking nicely about the Iranians when they are not around.”

Yet a wider rift has also been emerging between the youth and the Hazara leadership, which many young people feel is exploiting ethnic tensions to secure its power.

“After 2001, many young Afghans started thinking beyond ethnic groups, but the current National Unity Government [has] made it [the issue of sectarianism] worse again,” Qurban Ali, a 39-year-old Hazara claimed.

Views like this these are prevalent, with Hazaras still reporting that they face discrimination when applying for government jobs or trying to join the Afghan army.

The provinces chiefly inhabited by Hazaras have also remained among the least developed areas in the country, something many Hazaras feel has to do more with ethnicity than economics.

Hazaras live in some of the most deprived areas of Afghanistan (AFP)

Internal splits 

And some Hazaras have begun to mend ties with the Taliban as a result of the growing risk of IS. In the western province of Ghazni, a group of Hazara elders approached the Taliban for protection in 2015The Taliban agreed.

Mohammad Akbari, the only Hazara leader to cooperate with the Taliban in the 1990s, goes as far to say that his community must “finish the war with the Taliban and then work with them to finish IS” – but this stance remains an unpopular one with many members of the community.

Last November, the bodies of seven Hazaras - including women and a nine-year-old girl - were found beheaded by IS. The Taliban intervened, hunted down and killed the those believed to be behind the attack - but the move has failed to win hearts and minds.

The Taliban and IS oppose one another, but the general public does not see much difference between them, and at protests following the deaths, demonstrators cried chants against IS and the Taliban alike. 

In this climate, Iran’s alleged support for the Taliban has not gone down well.

“Hazaras cannot accept this, even if it is just for countering IS,” Amiri from Mohaqiq’s party said. Amiri said proof of Iranian support for the Taliban would change the party’s relationship with Iran.

“Only the political leaders have benefited from the relationship with Iran. Nothing has come out of it for regular Hazaras,” Qurban Ali said.

Additional reporting by Hussain Ali and Rohina Haroon

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