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 Shia 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. The haphazard way Iran has sought to play all sides off each other in pursuit of its short-term interests imperils its longer-term interest in a stable, friendly Afghanistan. It has also engendered enmity among broad swathes of the population, as evidenced by pushback and demonstrations against Iranian meddling in recent years.
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 in 2011 and accounted for 27.6% of Afghanistan’s $5 billion annual imports. 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 Shia, 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 Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia. 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 a 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 Shia.
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 Shia MPs are Al-Mustafa graduates.” According to Seyed Mortazawi, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s representative in Afghanistan, there are nearly 15,000 Afghanis enrolled in Shia 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 Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, the Fatemiyoun is a group of Afghan Shi’a fighting in support of the al-Assad regime of Syria. The Fatemiyoun commanders are ideologically loyal to the Quds Force and Tehran, but the bulk of its fighters are impoverished Afghan Shias enticed by a $500/month stipend and Iranian residency in return for joining pro-Assad militias. Some of the more ideologically motivated fighters were reportedly recruited during their studies at Al-Mustafa.