Iran has pursued a multifaceted strategy blending hard and soft power approaches, seeking to cultivate religious, cultural, economic, and political influence in Afghanistan in order to gain a territorial and ideological foothold in this neighboring, civil war torn country. While Iran has a long term interest in a “stable, multiethnic, and friendly Afghanistan,” it views the U.S. presence as a strategic threat and has thus made the short-term interest of driving out America its main priority. To that end, it has pursued policies oriented toward impeding NATO and the Afghan government’s efforts to stabilize the country, including training and arming its former ideological foe, the Taliban, since 2006.
In assisting the Taliban, as well as Persian-speaking Tajiks and Shi’a Hazara groups opposed to the Taliban, Iran is hedging its bets that whatever government emerges in Afghanistan will be friendly, or at least not threaten its interests. However, the haphazard way in which Iran has played all sides off each other in pursuit of its short-term interests imperils its longer-term interest in a stable, friendly Afghanistan. Broad swathes of Afghanistan’s population detest Iranian meddling in Afghanistan’s political affairs, as evidenced by popular street demonstrations. There has also been significant political pushback against Iran, with Afghani officials denouncing the role that the IRGC has played in backing the Taliban, as it sought to destabilize the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
On February 29, 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha that envisioned a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for assurances from the Taliban that the group would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The agreement was meant to pave the way for negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government on a power sharing agreement that would shape Afghanistan’s future.
Since the agreement was reached, Iran has continued to play a destabilizing double game in Afghanistan, seeking to ensure that it will retain influence in the country regardless of the outcome of the peace process. On the one hand, Iran has sought to ingratiate itself with the Afghan government
At the same time, though, Iran has continued to maintain contact with the Taliban to retain leverage over the Afghan government and peace process. Moreover, Iran is evidently working to sabotage the peace process by backing more radical elements and splinter groups from the Taliban who oppose negotiations and wish to keep fighting the central government and U.S. military presence.
Beyond supporting Afghan proxies of competing stripes, Iran has dramatically expanded its economic ties with Afghanistan to buy influence in the country. Iran increased its exports from $800 million in 2008 to over $2 billion by 2011 and accounted for 27.6% of Afghanistan’s $5 billion annual imports. According to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce, Iran surpassed Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner from March 2017-2018—with Iran exporting goods worth $1.98 billion. Iran has also provided up to $500 million in development assistance to Afghanistan. Iran’s economic influence in Afghanistan is best illustrated by its development of the western city of Herat, where Iran has developed the electrical grid, invested heavily in the mining industry, and invested over $150 million to build a school, mosque, residential apartments, a seven-mile road, and even stocked store shelves with Iranian goods.
Perhaps the most important prong of Iran’s Afghanistan strategy has been its efforts at ideological expansion. Afghanistan is a primarily Muslim country with roughly 35 million citizens. Dari, the Afghan variant of Farsi, is the most common language, spoken by 50% of the population including Tajiks, many of whom feel a cultural affinity toward Iran. Roughly 20% of Afghan Muslims are Shi’a, primarily belonging to the Hazara, “a much-persecuted minority group of Asiatic origin.” Iran has sought to leverage its religious, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic bonds with Tajiks and Shi’a Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to empower and exercise influence over these groups and their affiliated political parties.
The primary levers at Iran’s disposal to spread its Khomeinist ideology in Afghanistan are its charitable and religious-educational networks. The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) is the primary Iranian charity active in Afghanistan, with over 45 offices mainly serving areas populated by Shi’a and Persian speakers. After the Taliban government was toppled in Afghanistan, Iran dispatched an IRGC-Quds Force commander to coordinate Iran’s relief and rebuilding effort, which included drastically increasing the IKRC’s activities in the country in a bid to influence village leaders and poorer citizens. The IKRC provides health, social services, financial assistance, vocational training, and wedding sponsorship to over 30,000 Afghans annually, frequently seeking to tie its charitable works to ideological indoctrination. The IKRC organizes Afghanistan’s annual Quds Day festivities, celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and contests to measure aid recipients’ knowledge of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Last Will and Testament.
Iran seeks to ensure that its revolutionary Khomeinist ideology is dominant among Afghan Shi’a. To that end, Iran has focused on building schools and universities throughout Afghanistan and furnishing them with books, some benign, but many of which disseminate Iranian religious and political propaganda. One of the primary institutions oriented toward propagating fealty to velayat-e faqih is Khatam-al Nabyeen University, built in 2006 by an Iran-leaning cleric at the cost of $17 million. Iran’s links to the university are deliberately opaque. There are no Iranians present at the school, but rather Afghan teachers who studied in Iran. The school’s founder, Grand Ayatollah Mohseni’s religious credentials are not recognized by Najaf, so Mohseni is beholden to Qom and Tehran for legitimacy. While Iran has not pledged support to Khatam-al Nabyeen and there is no discernible money trail back to Tehran, the school’s Khomeinist curriculum makes it a vehicle for spreading Iran’s influence to Afghan Shi’a.
Iran’s role in supporting Al-Mustafa International University’s rapidly expanding presence in Afghanistan over the last decade is much clearer. According to Al-Mustafa officials, the university operates a network of 40 seminaries in Afghanistan and gives financial aid to 5000 students, teachers, clerics, and missionaries each year. Al-Mustafa’s graduates have gone on to garner considerable influence within the Afghan government. According to Hassan Jan Mohammadi, an Al-Mustafa official in Afghanistan, “In parliament over 30% of Shi’a MPs are Al-Mustafa graduates.” According to Seyed Mortazawi, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s representative in Afghanistan, there are nearly 15,000 Afghanis enrolled in Shi’a seminaries in Iran. “Ayatollah Khamenei gives money to clerics who go to Afghanistan as missionaries so they become powerful and distribute stipends to other clerics in Afghanistan,” according to Mortazawi. Al-Mustafa’s network of seminaries and army of Afghan clerics that it has trained constitute a formidable tool to generate support in Afghanistan for the Iranian regime’s ideology and foreign policy imperatives.
Iran has leveraged its ideological influence in Afghanistan to form its own Afghan proxy militia, the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Formed in 2013 by the IRGC-Quds Force and under direct command of then-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, the Fatemiyoun is a group of Afghan Shi’a fighting in support of the al-Assad regime of Syria. Often recruiting Afghan Shi’a refugees in Iran, and to a lesser extent, Shi’as within Afghanistan itself, the IRGC offers a $500/month stipend and Iranian residency in return for joining pro-Assad militias. The Fatemiyoun commanders are ideologically loyal to the Quds Force and Tehran, but the bulk of its fighters are impoverished Afghan Shi’as enticed by the benefits promised by Iran, which often fail to materialize. Some of the more ideologically motivated fighters were reportedly recruited during their studies at Al-Mustafa.
The Fatemiyoun was upgraded from a brigade to a division in 2015, indicating the militia’s ranks had grown to at least 10,000 fighters, with some estimates reaching as high as 20,000. The Fatemiyoun militants in Syria have typically been dispatched to dangerous fighting on the front lines with inadequate training and tactical preparation, leading to high casualty rates. Fatemiyoun survivors and deserters have described heavy-handed recruitment methods, including threats of being expelled from Iran and handed over to the Taliban in order to coerce marginalized Afghan refugees to fight in a war they have little understanding of or connection to. Human Rights Watch has identified at least 14 minors who fought and died in Syria for the Fatemiyoun Division.
An additional objective of ideological expansion in Afghanistan was to attain political influence in the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai government that replaced the Taliban. Iran held workshops in the Iranian holy cities of Qom, Mashhad, and Isfahan for Afghani students, with the stated aim of positioning members of Afghanistan’s Shi’a community within government decision-making circles. At these workshops, the students learned a concept called taqiyyah, or the dissimulation of one’s faith and true intentions. According to Ahmadi Mianji, an advisor to Al-Mustafa University’s president, revealing one’s Shi’a faith, let alone one’s ideological commitment to the Islamic Republic, would likely hinder or even bar ascension to the upper echelons of government in the Sunni-majority government. Mianji explained, “because [the Shi’a] religion is not recognized [in Afghanistan], [Shiites] would have no place in civil laws…It is mentioned in [the] hadith to go and pray at Sunnis mosques, and anyone who does so is like a warrior who has taken his sword out for God, and is doing jihad.”
While the educational initiative did not bear fruit, Iran sought ways to expand its proxy militia network in Afghanistan. Iran saw that U.S. troop withdrawals, which were set to begin in January 2021, would strip the Afghan government and military of vital support. In response, then Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered the Afghan government to fill the void with Afghan Shi’a militants, some of which were battle-hardened from the Syrian civil war. The impetus behind the Iranian offer was ostensibly to combat the ISIS threat in Afghanistan, which endangers the minority Hazara population. Kabul did not welcome the offer, however, seeing that these militias could operate autonomously from the state and rival its power, like Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that are loyal to IRGC commanders. Afghanistan’s foreign ministry spokesman said, “The national interest and foreign policy of Afghanistan do not permit Afghan citizens, except when under the national flag, to enter regional wars and conflicts in different countries.”
But ISIS is not the only Sunni extremist group that threatens the Hazara population; the Taliban have a history of violence against them. As recently as July 2021, the Taliban massacred nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province. Recalling the oppression of the Hazara people under the former Taliban rule, the IRGC-controlled Tasnim news wrote, “If [the Taliban] want to be accepted by its people and the world public opinion, it has no choice but to show in practice that the image of the Taliban’s five-year rule (1996-2001) should be forgotten.” Then, the news network claimed to promote “ethnic-religious diversity.” The Deputy Minister of Culture of AIU Afghanistan extended a welcome to Shiites and Sunnis to the 27th Quranic Festival and Competition of the Mustafa Society.
The inclusion rhetoric obscures Iran’s true intentions in Afghanistan. Under the banner of supporting the Hazara’s fight for self-defense, Iran could grow armed militias whose devotion lies with the Supreme Leader of Iran, especially after the Taliban took over Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal. As in other areas where Iranian-backed militias operate, these would have the potential to exert influence over the government and advance Iranian foreign policy interests.