Iran’s Claws Sink Deeper Into Afghanistan

The Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif has caused a stir in Afghanistan. In an interview with Afghan journalist Lotfullah Najafizada, Zarif openly expressed Iran’s willingness to regroup its battle-hardened Shia Afghan militant force, the Fatemiyoun, to fight against ‘terrorism’ in Afghanistan.

Zarif added “they [Fatemiyoun] are the best forces with a military background against Daesh”. Bizarrely, in the aftermath of what was perceived in Afghanistan as blatant Iranian interference in domestic affairs, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib visited Tehran and met Zarif, in what would be considered Kabul’s tacit approval of Zarif’s stance. Mohib emphasised “the need to expand political, economic, cultural and security cooperation between the two countries.”

The past nineteen years have seen an oscillating stance from Tehran toward Afghanistan. Perhaps unusually, Tehran enthusiastically supported the US in overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001 and established close ties with successive governments in Kabul. In recent years, it also developed ties with the Taliban. The ambiguity of Iran’s stance was further reinforced with Zarif openly criticising the US-Taliban deal which paved the way for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan that Tehran has long called for. Noteworthy is Tehran’s recruitment of tens of thousands of Afghan Shia to fight in its Fatemiyoun militia in Syria. This has led to a growing suspicion of Iran as to its role within Afghanistan in its promotion of sectarianism, with Zarif’s interview only fuelling these concerns.

Yet Iran’s policy is not one-dimensional; confined to one theatre at a time serving different realms to Tehran. These realms are interrelated, serving both pragmatic and ideological goals. Iranian client networks operate on a vast scale and are deployed duly where a need arises. This was summed up by the successor to Qassem Solaimani, General Qaani, who described Fatemiyoun as “a new culture — a collection of brave men who do not see boundaries and borders in defending Islamic values.” [1] Qaani was also accused by the governor of Afghanistan’s predominantly Shia Hazara province of Bamyan,
 of travelling to the province under a false identity as recently as 2018. [2]

To assess Afghan suspicions of Iran, contextualisation is needed of Iran’s soft (ideological) and hard (military) power. Not just of Iran’s current and potential roles in the Afghan context, but regionally too. Just as Iranian clients pervade the Middle East, so too can the same clients augment Tehran’s influence in Afghanistan.


Whilst the War on Terror and its associated epistemologies are used to castigate Iran in Western capitals, Iran has deftly manipulated the otherwise hostile post 9/11 paradigm to emerge as one of its leading beneficiaries. Perhaps it was with this in mind that President Trump publicly derided America’s policy of ‘endless wars’, as Washington lurches from side to side, losing direction, purpose and focus by the day, whilst empowering its foes in Tehran, Beijing or Damascus. Through a coalescence of the blundering incompetence of its Gulf rivals, together with the heavy-handed clumsiness of the US, and its own doubtless determination and cunning, Iran’s status as a regional power is inarguable. It could be considered the regional power; its so-called Shia Crescent of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran is the greatest reflection of Iranian primacy in the region. [3]

The expansion of Iranian influence can in no small part be attributed to the appeal of its state-sponsored brand of Shi’ism. Having recognised this, the US Treasury on December 8th moved to sanction Al-Mustafa International University: an international network of Iranian operated religious seminaries with branches in Afghanistan. The Treasury’s statement asserted “the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force has used Al-Mustafa as cover for its recruitment of Afghans.” [4] Why Shia Afghans would fight for a second country (Iran) in a third country (Syria) is due to Iran’s distinctly Shia constitutional fabric, shaped by the doctrine of Wilayatul Faqih: Custodianship of the Jurist. Iran’s constitution posits the Supreme Leader, mandatorily a Shia jurist, as an interim-leader in the millennium-long occultation of the Mahdi: a sacred and infallible figure to Shia worldwide, believed to be divinely appointed. This doctrine, though disputed heavily [5], has enamoured Shia from an array of countries, for whom the Iranian Supreme Leader is second only to the Mahdi.

A case in point is that of the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Hezbollah not only considered Ayatollah Khomeini “official marja’ al-taqlid (religious-legal authority of emulation) of the Islamic Republic and as the first faqih (jurisprudent, jurisconsult)” but also regarded “wilayat alfaqih, as defined by Khumayni, as its true Islamic cultural identity and adopted it, in its original formulation’ and ‘paid homage and allegiance to Khumayni as the political and religious leader of the umma’ [6].

At the same time, Iran has taken careful steps in building bridges with foes on the opposite side of the sectarian spectrum, seemingly self-defeating given the mutual sectarian animosity. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was given refuge in Iran after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, under whom he had been heading an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. This was whilst he made no secret of his feelings toward Shia Muslims: espousing his view that they were enemies of Islam [7]. Slain Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, at whose behest al-Zarqawi and his accomplices were given safe passage, saw Al-Zarqawi’s aims to start a Sunni anti-American insurgency as an asset for Iranian regional dominance and provided him with material support. This despite al-Zarqawi’s open enmity to Shia that resulted in thousands of Iraqi Shia being killed at his hands [8].


Coupled with its flirtations with Al-Qaeda, Iranian influence in Iraq, a society with a large Shia demographic, is paramount. Iran frequently mediates in petty squabbles between its cabal of influential Shia politicians and militias, who in turn dominate Iraq [9]. The rule of Iranian protege PM Nouri al-Maliki set in motion events that led to the rise of Daesh, beaten back only with massive US air support and thousands of recruits to Shia militias. The daunting gloom of Daesh ultimately provoked Shia clerics such as Ayatullah al-Sistani, the foremost religious authority in Iraq, to release a fatwa calling on all Iraqis to defend their country from Daesh. The call was heeded by tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia.

The significance of this was lost on many. Sistani, of Iranian origin, had generally remained independent of Tehran, unlike others. His distinctness is cemented absent a firm endorsement of wilayat-ul-faqih: an issue of centrality in matters pertinent to Iran and its Shia credentials. Sistani’s fatwa, however, aligned what was hitherto an independent cleric with the Iranian camp firmly under Tehran within the broader context: a war being increasingly and overtly characterised bloody sectarian fault-lines [10]. The fatwa led directly to the formation of four brigades loyal to him: Imam Ali Combat Division, Ansar al-Marjaiya Brigade, Abbas Combat Division and the Ali al-Akbar Brigade, under the umbrella of the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Since the defeat of Daesh, the fault-lines within the PMF have once again become apparent, further pointing to the alliance’s sectarian and temporary raison d’etre.

Tallha Abdulrazaq, Counterterrorism and Security expert at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and scholar on Iraq explains that “The dispute between pro-Sistani factions and the rest of the PMF is now less ideological and more budgetary. For years, pro-Sistani factions complained about discrimination against them in terms of their piece of the pie, and have now twice threatened to depart from the PMF and answer only to the prime minister’s office.” Abdulrazaq added that “This is telling because they are already supposed to be under the prime minister’s command, except the IRGC exert undue control over PMF operations. However, they have failed to do so and have been placated by something as banal as more money, which speaks to their pragmatism as opposed to any theological or political convictions beyond an anti-Sunni animosity.”


The commonalities between Iraq and Syria do not manifest solely in Daesh being an actor in both, which rejects the border between them as illegitimate. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, often regarded an offshoot of Shia Islam. Once again, the increasing prominence of extremists like Daesh in Syria was no coincidence. It was engineered. As part of what was framed as a general amnesty, Assad released high-profile extremists to fracture opposition to him and sully a nationwide insurrection against his regime [11].

The increasingly visible extremism of the Syrian opposition conducted by design saw a corresponding increase of sectarian language to smear all opposition to the regime as ‘takfiri’ or ‘Wahhabi’; the latter initially referring to an 18th century Arabian puritanical movement, now employed by Iran’s axis as a catch-all term for dissenters.
Now embroiled in a sectarian war, Assad was helped by Tehran with men and materials, receiving millions of dollars [12] and reinforced by Iranian proxy Hezbollah to buttress his broken forces. Other forces were from Pakistan [13], Afghanistan [14], Iraq, and Lebanon [15] whose militants were recruited in their home countries through the proselytisation of state-sponsored Iranian Shi’ism, were deployed. In Syria, Fatemiyoun were only one of many of these militias [16].

The sectarianism wasn’t unique to the Syrian context. Sectarianism was instrumental in persuading otherwise hesitant Afghan Fatemiyoun recruits to see their campaign in Syria as one that was religiously sanctioned. “They chose the unit’s name wisely: Fatemiyoun.” Muhammad Jalil Dinsta, a former Fatemiyoun fighter, recalled, “They say that Omar [a revered figure amongst Sunni Muslims] killed Fatemeh, the daughter of the Prophet. Now they gathered us to take revenge for Fatemeh’s death on the Sunnis.” [17]
For others, it wasn’t the same. Whilst Zarif insisted that the Shia Afghans who had gone to Syria “went to fight for their beliefs”, threats of deportation against Afghan refugees in Iran, in the event they refused to fight in Syria, has been documented [18]. Afghan refugees in Iran, predominantly Shia Hazaras, suffer from grim levels of systemic discrimination. Children are barred from attending schools [19], Afghans routinely face abuse and racism [20]. Enlisting in Fatemiyoun offered, for many, the only opportunity for social mobility. Shockingly, even children were enlisted as fighters, whether willingly or coerced. [21]

Zarif’s assertion that, just as in Syria, “the Afghan government is fully informed that we are prepared to…regroup these forces under the leadership of the Afghan National Army in the fight against terrorism” raised eyebrows in Afghanistan. This is hardly surprising; news of Iran’s destructive activity role in Syria has not gone unnoticed in Afghanistan, despite Afghanistan being embroiled in its own war of four decades. The hostility toward Zarif’s remarks was inevitable. Afghanistan is an overwhelmingly Sunni majority country and tens of thousands of its Shia citizens were recruited by Iran through the undisguised weaponisation of sectarian language of ‘taking revenge’ to fight Syrian Sunnis: co-religionists of most Afghans. Neither does the activity of Fatemiyoun mark a watershed in Iranian-Afghan relations, for during the Iran-Iraq War too, roughly 45,000 Afghan Shia were recruited by Tehran to fight a bloody war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The fact that Afghanistan at the time was itself under Soviet occupation against which a nationwide jihad (including Shia factions) was being fought makes the reality of Iran’s ideological potency further staggering. [22]


Iran is still relatively handicapped in its influence in Afghanistan, at least in terms of religion. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Sunni. In particular, the Hanafi school of jurisprudence functions as supreme rite of the land. Ethnic fault-lines, however, are more exploitable. This is particularly so given Afghanistan and Iran share a mutual language in Farsi, known as Dari in Afghanistan for political purposes. Mired in wars, Afghanistan suffers from a dire lack of indigenous academic activity or organisation. Iranian Farsi books have filled the void. The central library of Kabul University primarily stores books published in Iran. [23]

This may seem innocuous. A closer look reveals otherwise. Given Iran’s lack of academic freedom, censorship is active government policy [24]. Books supplied to Afghanistan by Iran are those approved first by Tehran. Furthermore, books are often imported without scrutiny by Afghan authorities. In 2009, the governor of Nimroz province seized thousands of Iranian books, whose contents he described as seditious, instigating ethnic and religious conflict in Afghanistan [25]. The books were later thrown symbolically into the Helmand River, which flows into Iran and whose water rights remain disputed between the two countries. The sharing of a common language has also created what Ehsan Azari Stanizi termed ‘cultural homogenisation’ where the use of lexicon and terminology used in Iranian Farsi is increasingly encouraged and promoted in Afghanistan, where it is foreign, at the expense of native idioms. [26]

Iran’s activities are not restricted just to the military and the educational, or indeed, the real world. Online too, Iranian disinformation has been detected. The Stanford University’s Internet Observatory reported that Facebook, in an attempt to curb Iranian disinformation, had shut down 11 pages, 6 groups, 28 profiles and 47 Instagram accounts targeting Dari speakers in Afghanistan [27]. The network amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on different platforms with fake accounts, posting pro Iranian messaging. They emphasised using the term Farsi as opposed to Dari in order to “foster Afghan-Iranian solidarity.” Kabul has termed the local dialect of Persian ‘Dari’ to mark its distinctness from the Iranian variant. Other topics included promotion of women’s rights, criticism of Pakistan whilst accusing the United States of secretly colluding with the Taliban. A number of posts praised Iran, suggesting it was the country to play a vital role in ‘stabilising’ Afghanistan.


Discourse on Afghanistan has usually focused on the roles of Pakistan and the USA in Afghanistan. Less focus has been devoted to Iran, firstly due to the more visible roles played by the US and Pakistan as well as the more apparent role that Iran plays in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Highlighting Iran’s exploitation of sectarianism in the Middle East whilst avoiding the same policy in Afghanistan is naïve, at best. This is doubly so when Iran’s wars in the Middle East are facilitated in large part by its advancement of sectarianism in recruiting Afghan Shia. Its own Foreign Minister further confirms this. Even authorities in Kabul seem to follow the pattern, with Afghanistan’s Vice President Amrullah Saleh recently alleging Taliban plans to massacre Shia Afghans, which was condemned by Afghan Shia leaders themselves as fear-mongering. [28]

Iran advances the idea of regrouping its own Shia militants on Afghan soil. Iran supported the US to overthrow the Taliban, then assisted the Taliban (whom it declares a terrorist organisation) against the US and its client regime in Kabul. Online misinformation attributed to Iran criticises the US-Taliban withdrawal agreement whilst Iran has called for a US withdrawal for the better part of two decades. This circle can only be squared when the instinct of keeping one’s neighbour weak, common in many capitals across history, is accounted for. Either in order to protect oneself against perceived threats or to widen one’s own influence, these aims often work hand in glove, becoming indistinguishable. Ovel Lobel sums this up: Iran seeks to “bleed the United States and its allies and keep the country broken. This is designed to create more space for its most important and hitherto unutilized asset: Afghan Shi’ite brigades.” [29]

In the case of Iran and Afghanistan, this is not without precedent. In the 19th century, after decades of supporting the rival half-brothers of the Afghan Amir Dost Muhammad Khan who collectively ruled Qandahar, the Amir’s conquest of Herat in 1863 and resultant reunification of the Afghan Kingdom induced hysteria amongst the Qajars then ruling Iran. [30]

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30] Kakar, Ahmed-Waleed. (2018). Non-interventionism, Forward Policy and imperial zig-zags: an analysis of British policy toward Afghanistan 1855-1881 (MA). Unpublished dissertation submitted at King’s College London.

1- Javad Zarif. Source: Tolonews Youtube channel

2- Liwa Fatemiyoun. Source:

Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar
Ahmed-Waleed Kakar is an analyst who focuses on Afghanistan. He attained an MA in World History from King's College London. He also completed a BSc in Politics and History.

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