Afghan Refugees in Iran: Yesterday’s Assets, Today’s Troubles

Conflicts are rarely contained within a country’s geographic borders, in fact, during the twenty-first century they have almost always impacted a country’s neighbors.  This can occur in a multitude of forms ranging from refugee flows, terrorism, to altering the domestic political economy of a particular country. This is made particularly visible in examining the effects of the decades long conflict in Afghanistan on its neighbor, Iran. According to Iranian officials the conflict in Afghanistan has had an extremely negative impact on the domestic workings of Iran. Specifically, Iranian officials have claimed that Afghan refugees residing in Iran are having an overwhelmingly negative impact on the political economy of the country. This is apparently manifested itself by Afghan refugees taking jobs from Iranian citizens. This point does have some truth to it, as Afghan refugees work many hard-labor jobs for a lower price than Iranian citizens and generally send the vast majority of their earnings back to Afghanistan in the form of remittances. The total amount of such remittances adds up to around three to four billion euros. Currently, as Iran is going through a domestic economic crisis the government of the country has begun utilizing the nearly 2.5 million Afghan refugees in the country as political bargaining chips. This is particularly the case in regard to the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States after the latter left the Iran nuclear deal in the spring of 2018. In an interview with Iran’s IRNA news agency, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Sayed Abbas Araghchi said Iran would ask the Afghan refugees to return to their country of citizenship if economic sanctions are increased by the United States.

If the threats made by the deputy foreign minister were to materialize it is highly unlikely that the Afghan refugees would return to Afghanistan which is still in a state of conflict that has deteriorated in recent months. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the 2.5 million would likely attempt to seek refuge in another country, likely somewhere in Europe. This is not simply a theory but has been previously documented in flows of Afghan refugees that have left Iran be it voluntarily or by force.

The notion of refugees having an impact on the domestic politics of a country is arguably more visible in Europe than on any other continent as is made visible by the landmark vote that caused the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2016 and the rise of the far-right in places ranging from France to Austria.  In this regard, the potential of further refugee flows that could be up to hundreds of thousands of people is not something that European countries would take lightly. Therefore, Iran is trying to use refugees as political tools in a broader geopolitical game between European countries, Iran, and the United States. Specifically, Iran is attempting to utilize the threat of refugee flows to Europe as a means to convince Europe to place  more pressure on the  United States  to prevent the imposition  of even more economic sanctions on Iran’s economy which are only worsening the already dire macroeconomic environment in the Middle Eastern country.  This threat to European countries was made even more clear in a letter from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the other parties of the Iran deal , including France, Germany and the European Union. Specifically, he warned the parties to the Iran Deal that any failure to keep the deal alive and prevent the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran would result in further refugee flows to Europe, worsening the ongoing crisis and effecting the pollical atmosphere across Western Europe. In short, Iran is attempting to grab Europe’s attention and force the continent to oppose the United States imposing more sanctions on Iran and using the livelihoods of around 2.5 million Afghan refugees to do so. The message that Iran is sending could not be more clear, European countries must oppose the United Sates imposing sanctions on Iran’s economy. If they do not, Iran will force Afghan refugees that have been living in the country for decades to leave the country, and many of them will undoubtedly attempt to travel to Europe.

Using Afghan refugees as political tools is by no means a new methodology being utilized by the government of Iran. In fact, the Iranian regime has long history of such activities. For instance this has materialized in military means such as when the Iranian Revolutionary Guards created the division of Afghan Shia during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 called the Abouzar Brigade.They were mobilized and encouraged to fight the Sunni Iraqi army in support of the Iranian “Ayatollah’s” regime which is the main promoter of Shia sectarianism in the Islamic world. According to Iranian media, it is believed that Abouzar Brigade suffered about 3000 causalities during the Iran-Iraq war, the majority of whom were Afghan Shia nationalities who had fled to Iran due to both oppressive rule and conflict in Afghanistan. This is also the case in the ongoing conflict in Syria, which is crucial to the interests of Iran in the Middle East due to Syria’s strategic location and its land border with Israel. Iran has mobilized and sent Afghan Shia, the majority of whom were Afghan refugees living in Iran to fight for Iran-backed militias in Syria. Notably, Iran engaged in a public relations campaign to win over the support of Afghan Shia for such actions by saying the fighters were protecting the routes to access holy Shia shrines across Syria. Although the Iranian media claims that the Afghan Shia mobilization were volunteer fighters with  the sole aim of  protecting the Sayyida Zainab Mosque in the suburbs of Damascus, this is evidently a false claim. Specifically, since 2013, the Fatemiyon division of Iran Revolutionary Guard, which is  mainly composed of Afghan Shia, has been sent to fight Iran’s proxy in Syria for support of president Bashar al-Assad defending his regime from what was once an eminent collapse at the hands of opposition groups, who are mainly supplied and supported by Iran’s rivals both in the region and across the world. Furthermore, it is reported that Afghan Shia fighters who were asylum seekers in Iran  were attracted to join Iranian militias and fight in the Syrian war by promise of financial rewards, the cancelation of prison sentences, and being given Iranian citizenship.

As the Taliban commences its annual spring offensive in Afghanistan, and the political and economic circumstances  become even more uncertain in the country, more Afghans will likely attempt to flee the country. A substantial portion of such individuals will likely flee to Iran. Yet, they will not find political refugee but will instead be treated as pollical pawns by a government that has a record of not respecting the human rights of its own citizens, not to mention those of a less-powerful neighboring country.  

The future of Afghan refugees living in Iran depends on the level of tensions  between the United States and Iran. Recent actions by both the United States and Iranian government have raised the tensions at its peak. For instance, the United States’ designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard as foreign  terrorist organization, which was reciprocated  by the Iranian government which recognized the United Sates government as supporter of terrorism, and designated  the U.S forces in West Asia or the U.S Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organization. Furthermore, the tensions were aggravated after Saudi Arabian oil tankers were sabotaged by what were supposedly Iranian actors off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. In an immediate action the United States has “warned shipping companies that ‘Iran or its proxies’ could be targeting maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf region and said it was deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf to counter alleged threats from Tehran”. Moreover,  in another action the United Sates Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented a military plan that predicts possibility of sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East in case there is an attack on American forces or a resumption of nuclear activities by the Iranian regime.  However, the United States’ reimposition of economic sanctions and military brinkmanship did not result in any change in Iranian government’s position. Instead, Iranian officials claimed that the United States military presence in the Gulf is not a risk but an opportunity for Iran as they are easy targets in case of any military confrontations.

Now, what will be the effects of the US-Iran tensions on the Afghan refugees living in Iran? Is the Iranian government going to deal with the refugees as a humanitarian matter or it will use them once again as a political tool as it has been doing for a long time? The ideal answer will be no, since it’s only fair to deal with refugees as humanitarian issue. In addition, they have been a big asset for the Iranian government, both economic and military wise. However, history of discrimination against Afghan refugees, and recent statements by Iranian officials lead one to conclude a pessimistic view about the Afghan refugee’s future in Iran.

Image credit: DVIDSHUB via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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