By Daniel Dayan
January 13, 2021
The Islamic Republic of Iran is flexing its media muscles in the western Afghan province of Herat, situated on the valley of the Hari River. The large Shia population in Herat and its comparative spending power make it fertile ground for Iranian propaganda – and an attractive target.
Statements by Afghan officials and reports by citizens on the ground suggest that Iran has ramped up its media activities in this area in recent years. In Herat, part of the costs of the local TV channels Esteghlal, Taban and Vatan 24 are paid by the Iranian consulate in return for pro-Islamic Republic advertising.
But it goes further. These three stations are also expected to observe Iranian censorship rules and broadcasting red lines, to the point that a former director of one of the networks has claimed they can no longer question or hold Iranian authorities to account.
Speaking under the pseudonym Mohammad, this ex-director told IranWire that content running contrary to the Islamic Republic’s official interests is now barred. While he was still in the newsroom, he said, they were not allowed to broadcast news of Afghan citizens’ protests against the Iranian regime.
“On several occasions,” he said, “they did not allow protests against the Iranian government to be televised. It was clear that Iran was footing the bill: to the point that even our editorial policy was in line with that of state media. I protested several times, and each time I was threatened with dismissal.”
An official with links to television stations in Herat, who spoke to IranWire on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian consulate had repeatedly asked for propaganda videos about Saudi Arabian military interventions in Yemen to be aired in exchange for cash.
The Iranian consulate in Herat has also been funding short journalism training courses hosted in Iran, for local members of the Afghan media. Most of these are held at Allameh Tabatabai University in Mashhad, and many Afghans believe these journalists come back indoctrinated by the Islamic Republic and ready to advance Iran’s foreign policies in domestic media.
A source in Herat Department of National Security told IranWire that two journalists had been arrested about two years ago on charges of “espionage” for the Islamic Republic, while a third had fled to Iran. Separately, a Voice of Afghanistan correspondent In another example, a Herat-based Voice of Afghanistan correspondent affiliated with the Tebyan center, an Iran-backed cultural institute in Kabul, is alleged to have recorded a provincial official speaking in a private conversation against the Islamic Republic and sent it to Iran.
Local media is not the only means through which the Islamic Republic disseminates propaganda in Herat. Another route is through Shiite scholars in the province who were trained in Iranian seminaries, especially Qom, who go on to encourage Afghan citizens to accept the ideals of the Islamic Republic in their sermons.
A citizen of Herat named Ali told IranWire that at his mosque, the imam regularly emphasizes that Iran is the only “defender” of Shiites in the world.
Many local Shiite factions have worked hard to mobilize Afghans to fight on behalf of the Islamic Republic under the banner of the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria. Many young people from Herat have gone to the frontlines for Iran as a consequence, and many have lost their lives.
Iran also hosts cultural and art exhibitions to cultivate influence among Shiites in Afghanistan, particularly on anniversaries such as that of the Islamic Revolution. For five years now calligraphy and painting displays by Iranian artists have been hosted by the consulate in Herat. Earlier this year, posters featuring former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a number of jihadi commanders were erected in parts of Herat in support of the IRGC’s Quds Force, whose former commander Ghasem Soleimani was killed in a drone strike on January 2, 2020. They were later taken down amid public outcry.
Finally, the Islamic Republic has made efforts to convince Afghan investors to leave their country and invest in Iran. Nisar Ahmad Tavakoli, president of Herat Goldsmiths’ Union, told IranWire that the Iranian regime has offered any and all facilities needed for Afghan goldsmiths to take their business to Iran: “When Herat goldsmiths go to Iran, Iran issues them with a residence permit and provides them with a home.”
In October 2020, Seyyed Vahid Ghatali, the mayor of Herat, spoke publicly against foreign efforts to transfer capital away from his province. “I will crack down on any neighboring country that wants to transfer our industrial heart to its jurisdiction,” he said. “They have created terror so that the dollars will go and the gold will go, and to force us to live in poverty and misery.” He did not mention Iran by name, but the smuggling of dollars and gold from Herat to Iran is a well-known phenomenon among locals.
The presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran does not stop here but has also intensified in the military, economic and civil spheres across Afghanistan. Iranian officials constantly deny interference in this sovereign state, but the record now clearly shows otherwise.