Track Persia – Feb 18, 2017
Iran has a multitrack policy on Afghanistan. This can be attributed to different considerations: domestic politics, regional instability, expansionist ambitions, perceived threats and International pressure over its nuclear program.
Radicalizing the Shiite movement
With the Shah’s downfall by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Iranian theocracy has advocated exporting its brand of revolution throughout the Islamic world and called upon the Muslims, particularly the Shia, to follow Iran’s model of revolution.
With the establishment of Shi’ism as an official religion in Iran in the sixteenth century, the Shia in Afghanistan looked to Iran as their religious centre. The Shiite Muslims there constitute around 10 per cent of the population. The most important Shiite groups are the Hazaras.
The Shiite communities in Afghanistan are among those targeted by the Iranian regime’s radicalization campaign which aims at asserting its influence in Afghanistan’s politics and achieving its expansionist strategy in the region.
With its establishment, the Iranian theocracy has taken the side of the anti-Kabul opposition forces. During the uprising in Herat province in March 1979 against government, Ayatollah Shariat Madari called upon the Shia in Afghanistan for an insurrection and was ready to provide every possible assistance to the uprising which claimed hundreds of lives form both sides. Kabul accused Iran of instigating the uprising and warned its residents to beware of Iranian saboteurs who might be hiding in Kabul. [i]
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 created a conundrum for Ayatollah Khomeini. He could neither remain reticent about the invasion of an Islamic country by “atheists,” nor could he afford to antagonize the Soviet Union.
Thus, Iran staunchly condemned the occupation of Afghanistan and demanded the Soviet withdrawal, but it was exceptionally vigilant not to allow its policy toward Afghanistan to damage irrevocably its otherwise amiable relations with Moscow.
The essence of Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan was to create an “ideological sphere of influence” by mobilizing and energizing the Afghan Shia.
Tehran’s Shi’i- cantered policy succeeded in transforming the historically marginalized Hazaras, Qizilbash, and Farsiwans Shia into a disciplined and cohesive force. It provided financial support to these Shia, trained a generation of activists, and established close links with the Afghan clerics.
During the Afghan civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Iran continued supporting its anti-Kabul client Shi’i groups like Hizb –e-Wahdat whose clashes with opponents resulted in the deaths, injury, kidnapping and displacement of hundred thousands of people.
Iran dispatched military instructors to the Northern Alliance, with the Wahdat party and Ahmad Shah Mas’ud receiving the lion’s share. An estimated 80 to 150 men were being trained by Iranian military instructors at any given time.
Taliban, however, quickly consolidated its power and hold over 95 percent of Afghanistan. In 1998, Taliban abducted and executed 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist in the city of Mazar-e Sharif. Iran’s response was to consider evoking article VII of the treaty of Paris, which allowed it to invade western Afghanistan if it faced threats to its security. After amassing an estimated 200,000 troops along the border, Iran eventually backed off. Iran’s cautious decision was rewarded several years later when, following the September attacks, US officials met in secret with Iranian counterparts to develop tactical plans for the invasion of Afghanistan to oust their common enemy. Moreover, there were secret, back-channel talks in Geneva regarding Afghanistan between the United States and Iran, even before the September 1 1th attacks.
The forcible removal of the Taliban by the United States was an unintentional gift to Iran. The United States began to work closely with the Iranian-backed Northern Alliance, and Iranian advisors rubbed shoulders with American military personnel in the Northern Alliance controlled areas. Additionally, Tehran announced that it would provide sanctuary to distressed American military personnel inside Iranian territory, and allowed the United State to transport food and humanitarian goods to Afghanistan through Iran’s territory.
Iran and the US favoured a new government free of the Taliban, and agreed on many other critical issues. During the first year of the new Afghan government, the rapprochement between the United States and Iran continued as they competed for influence in Afghanistan.
On January 3rd, 2002, however, Israeli Defense Forces captured what they claimed to be a Palestinian Authority-owned freighter, the Karine A, loaded with 50 tons of weapons. It was also reported that the freighter had been loaded with weapons in Iran. The relations between the two countries deteriorated. A few weeks after the incident, President Bush included Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union speech.
During the leadership of Hamid Karzai as the head of the Interim Authority, Karzai accused Iran of fomenting instability by unifying his opponents. While Karzai favoured the presence of the US troops to consolidate his own rule and to stabilize the country, Iran demands their withdrawal.
During the presidential election in 2004, while Iran was publicly supporting the elections, it used the Mashhad radio, broadcast in Persian, to question the legitimacy of the election, calling Karzai the “stooge of the US.” Anis, an Afghan newspaper, has accused Iran of fomenting anti-US sentiment, citing the protest over alleged desecration of the Koran as an example, a charge Iran vehemently denies.[ii]
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military personnel revealed evidence in 2007 that Iran was supporting the insurgents, quite possibly with the sanction of Iran’s leadership. Late in 2009 General Stanley McChrystal wrote in his report on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan that he had evidence that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’s Qods force was “training fighters for certain Taliban groups and providing other forms of military assistance to insurgents.”
Attaining a degree of security against perceived threats to Iran’s economic and political interests in Afghanistan falls within Iran’s strategy too.
In the months that followed the signing of the Bonn agreement, Iran’s Pasdaran embarked on an ambitious effort to leave its mark on the post-Taliban era by sending weapons and money to long-time ally Ismail Khan, while aid and donations of goods were provided for new construction projects such as schools. Despite their support of Khan, who resisted centralized power in Kabul, Iranian intelligence agents were using bribes and financial incentives to build strategic ties with allies in the central government, most notably the Tajik warlord Mohammad Fahim.
Afghanistan provides Iran with excellent economic opportunities. The trade promotion organization of Iran observed that in 2006, Afghanistan received four percent of Iran’s total exports, putting it seventh of countries receiving Iranian goods.
Iran has also benefitted from including Afghanistan in the international north south transit corridor, a route used by India, the central Asian republics, and Russia for trade.
Iran has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to reconstruction in Afghanistan, building roads, railways, and infrastructure in partnership with partner countries like India. Admittedly, however, many of the most lucrative contracts in Afghanistan could very well have been given to Iran’s Pasdaran- and Bonyad-controlled companies.
The ‘pipeline politics’ however, tainted relations between the two countries. Iran’s vehement opposition to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline, and its own proposed $7billion, 2,600 kilometer Iran-Pakistan pipeline, angered many Afghans, who accused Iran of undermining their country’s economic well-being.
Afghan Refugees: The fodder of Iran’s dirty wars
Iran has historically been a destination for Afghan refugees. It is home to close to around million registered refugees and perhaps as many as one million others who are not registered.
Iranian officials used to complain that the presence of so many Afghan refugees created a variety of problems for Tehran. According to Iranian officials, the refugees put a strain on Iran’s economy by competing with Iranian citizens for scarce jobs, while weakening the economy by consuming and using Iran’s heavily subsidized goods and services. They argued that many of the refugees might also pose security risks because of their illegal status in the country. The fact, however, was the presence of Afghan refugees in Iran provided Tehran with a unique opportunity to train an indigenous Afghan force that was to be relocated to Afghanistan at the opportune moment. This policy permitted Iran to create a sophisticated network inside Afghanistan, reinvigorating indigenous organizations, and creating new, disciplined forces, similar to Lebanese Hezbollah.
Iran established training centres in Taibad, Gilan, Qum, Sabzwar, Zahidan, Tehran, Zabul, Birjand, Turbat-e-Jam, Sirjan and other cities in Iran, where members of the Afghan Shi’i organizations received military training for six months.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian government also dispatched a segment of the trainees to the battlefront, and promised to pay each of those trainees 30,000 Rials. The trainees complained that the Iranian leadership did not pay in full the salaries they were entitled to receive after returning from the Iran-Iraq front. [iii]
Since the start of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, Iran has been leading militia groups in both countries to fight for the Syrian regime, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards has told his country’s media.
Iran “created the Shia liberation army in Syria under the leadership of Qassem Soleimani,” General Mohammed Ali Falaki who leads Iranian forces in Syria told Mashregh News, a media outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards on Thursday.
“This army now fights on three fronts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen,” Gen. Falaki said.
Iran has used its indoctrinated Afghani refugees as fodder for its IRGC’s Qods Force recruitment to expand its ability to fight by proxy not only in Afghanistan but also in Syria and Iraq.
“The forces that belong to this army are not Iranians only, but in any place where there is a fight we organize, and supply the army from the people of the area,” and “It is not wise for our Iranian forces to be directly thrown into war in Syria, therefore our role should be limited to train, supply, and prepare the Syrians to fight in their areas.” Falaki told Mashregh News.
Falaki confirmed recent reports that Iran has recruited undocumented Afghan migrants of the Shiite faith and sent them to battle in Syria.
Afghans were among the first foreign fighters to join Hezbollah guerrillas in Syria. They have not only been recruited from Afghan immigrant communities in Iran and Syria, but also reportedly from Afghanistan itself via participating travel agencies; some even hail from European countries. These recruits sign up for a variety of reasons, on religious grounds, to improve their chances of obtaining permanent residency or work permits in Iran, for financial compensation, and so forth.
Iranian regime has also sent Iranian clerics to Afghanistan for recruiting Shi’i Afghanis to fight on the behalf of the Syrian regime. Last August, Afghanistan Intelligence arrested the Iranian official Qurban Ghalambor for recruiting Shiites for this purpose. Ghalambor’s arrest was part of a governmental campaign aiming to prevent the use of Afghani men in Iran’s wars in the region.
U.S. intelligence agencies recently identified nine training camps inside Iran where jihadists from Afghanistan are being trained for fighting in Syria, according to U.S. defense officials. The camps are part of a large-scale paramilitary training program run by Iran’s IRGC to battle Syrian rebels opposing the regime of Bashar al Assad that Tehran is backing.
The camps were identified in satellite photographs located in areas of northeastern Iran close to the Iraqi border, said officials familiar with intelligence reports of the training.
A US State Department official said he was aware of the reports. “If true, it would be a cruel exploitation of a group of vulnerable people already living in a precarious situation as refugees,” the official said. “And it would be another unfortunate reminder of the depths to which Iran is willing to go to continue to prop up the Assad regime.”
Sebastian Gorka, Horner professor of military theory at Marine Corps University, said “The murder and mayhem is not simply about Sunni jihadis like al Qaeda or the Islamic State, it is also about the competing Shia vision of their own expanding caliphate which has succeeded and is now gaining ground in Syria.”
“It is no longer about deploying Quds Force operators or IRGC units into the battlespace, but also sponsoring proxies and now actually training deniable force-multipliers such as these Afghan jihadis,” he said.
According to The Washington Free Beacon, Tehran has dispatched more than 70,000 fighters, including both Iranians and foreign fighters, to the conflict.
They include between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters of a group called the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan militia set up by IRGC’s Quds Force.
Qods Force training for the Afghans includes two to four weeks of basic military training. Upon completion of the training, the Afghans are paid the equivalent of $500 and sent to Syria in groups of 200 fighters.
The LA Times reported that Hazaras entering Iran are given a choice: Go to jail, face deportation, or fight in the Fatemiyoun Division. “Iranians see the Hazara as cannon fodder,” a Sheik from Qom, told the LA Times.
According to numerous interviews and blog posts featuring Fatemiyoun personnel, IRGC wants its proxy units to operate as independently as possible. And to ease their financial concerns about their families in Iran, the Martyrs Foundation — Iran’s version of the Department of Veterans Affairs — announced on August 13 that it would offer welfare to families of foreigners killed and wounded in Syria on behalf of the Islamic Republic.
Some of these Afghani fighters even received training in the Afghan National Army and police forces that were supervised by American and NATO advisors.
The Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters who operate in Syria under the command of the IRGC have also been tasked to train a sniper unit part of Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, according to a July 9 report by Iran’s Tasnim News agency.
Media reports mentioned a number of Afghani fighters had been killed in Syria and buried in special site in Iran. In addition, videos circulated in the media of Afghani fighters captured by the Free Syrian Army.
Rights groups say Iran uses threats to force undocumented Afghan refugees to join the brigade. The group Human Rights Watch reported in January that Iran was sending thousands of Afghans to Syria. It quoted Afghans saying they were told they would be deported or jailed if they didn’t agree to fight in Syria.
Renewed ties with Taliban
Iran has a history of providing direct support to both the Taliban and al Qaeda. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said on February the 9th that Russia and Iran are supporting the Taliban in part to undermine the U.S. and NATO mission there.
Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran is providing the Taliban in western Afghanistan with military and logistical support.
Afghan officials have also accused IRGC of fighting alongside the armed factions fighting the government in the west of Afghanistan.
Farah Province officials in western Afghanistan have recently told Radio France International website that Iran’s IRGC has been active amongst Taliban terrorists opposing the Afghan government.
Head of the Farah Province council Jamileh Amini has accused Iran of sending IRGC members to join the Taliban ranks and files, adding that 25 Taliban members recently killed in this province were IRGC members.
Farah Province intelligence services report Iranian officials have held ceremonies for IRGC members killed amongst the armed dissidents in their province opposing the Afghan government, according to Mohammad Nosser Mehri, spokesman of the Farah governor.
Farah Province Governor Mohammad Asef Nang accused Iran recently of harbouring Taliban families in its territory. He told VOA that “Families of a number of high-ranking Taliban leaders reside in Iran”.
Mullah Zabihullah, the official spokesman of the “Afghan Taliban” and the second man in the movement revealed the presence of relations and new networks with Iran. He said to the London based Asharq Al-Awsat in an email 18 months ago, that the movement had received drone planes, which help film suicidal operations.
Reports of deep Iran-Taliban relations dating back to June 2015 indicate how the Obama administration turned a blind eye to this very troubling phenomenon, most likely to not at all push Iran into derailing the controversial nuclear talks that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“Afghan and Western officials say Tehran has quietly increased its supply of weapons, ammunition and funding to the Taliban, and is now recruiting and training their fighters, posing a new threat to Afghanistan’s fragile security,” The Wall Street Journal reported in June 2015.
“Iran supplies us with whatever we need,” Abdullan, a Taliban commander stationed in central Afghanistan who received a $580 monthly salary and arms from his Iranian sponsors, told the paper.
Governors in Afghanistan’s southern and western provinces have also accused Iran of using an increasingly close relationship with the Afghan Taliban to target power and water projects on Teheran’s behalf, Voice of America (VOA) reported on Jan. 23.
Hayatullah Hayat, the governor of southern Helmand province, told VOA’s Afghan service that Iran wants to disable the Afghan dams in order to get more water from the Helmand River.
Hayat said Iran’s elite IRGC is providing the Taliban weapons that could be used to attack Afghan infrastructure. He said several unexploded mortar missiles used by the Taliban bore an Iranian manufacturer’s mark and were fired at the Helmand provincial capital.
Farah Province Governor Mohamed Asif Nang earlier accused the Iranian regime of destabilizing the province by inciting violence and fomenting unrest in an attempt to derail the construction of a dam in the province.
Supporting insurgents in Afghanistan might be Iran’s statement to its enemies that it has the capability to set Afghanistan, and the region as a whole, including the Levant, on fire in response.
Additionally, Iran does not want a stable emerging democracy because it would send a message to the young people of Iran who are restless for change. To this one could also add that a stable, democratic Afghanistan will put Iran’s Shi’a allies in Afghanistan at an indefinite political disadvantage with regard to the majority Pashtun population, which is primarily Sunni. In either case, a number of analysts suggest that Iran is deliberately boosting tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divides to keep the country politically weak so as to serve its own purposes.
Ties with al-Qaeda and bogus claims of fighting extremism
Tehran has further been accused of enjoying affiliations with al-Qaeda, a known ally of the Taliban.
Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security has “over the past 20 years, provided financial, material, technological, and other support services to AQI,” The Tower reported, citing the Pentagon’s Irregular Warfare Support Program analysis.
“In 2012, the United States Treasury Department exposed the extensive financial ties between Iran and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the terrorist organization that evolved into ISIS.
“The generous support Iran afforded ISIS in its formative years was part of a broader alliance that the Islamic Republic established with al-Qaeda over a decade ago.”
Russia, Iran, and al Qaeda are playing significant roles in Afghanistan—this wasn’t the case a few years ago,” Gen Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee during the aforementioned testimony. “I believe [these actions] are in part to undermine the United States and NATO, and prevent this strong partnership that we have with the Afghans in the region.”
According to Michael Pregent, a former U.S. military intelligence officer: “Iran needs the threat of ISIS and Sunni jihadist groups to stay in Syria and Iraq in order to become further entrenched in Damascus and Baghdad.”
Iran considers its support for terrorist and extremist groups, Shiites and Sunnis alike, through a perspective of convenience. From Hamas to Taliban, to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Syria, Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, Iran supports and backs groups precisely acting and pursuing its interests in specific areas of the Middle East.
Such a relationship with the Sunni terrorists reveals the bogus nature of Iran’s claims of fighting terrorism and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
[i] Hafizullah Emad, Exporting Iran’s Revolution: The Radicalization of the Shiite Movement in Afghanistan, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 1-12
[ii] Stephen Carter, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan and their implications for NATO, International Journal, Vol. 65, No. 4, part 1 (Autumn 2010), pp.977-993
[iii] Emad, Exporting Iran’s Revolution