Tensions Flare Between Neighbors After Afghan Man Kills Iranian Clerics

An Afghan immigrant this month entered one of the holiest shrines in Iran, Iranian media reported, drew a knife and stabbed three clerics multiple times, killing two of them and seriously injuring the third.

The stabbings at the Imam Reza shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad set off a chain of events that has escalated into ethnic tensions in Iran and Afghanistan and a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Both have sent troops to their common border.

Iranian officials said on Wednesday that the two countries were in talks to defuse the situation and that a Taliban delegation could soon travel to Tehran for talks.

But the hostilities have shown how easily a spark can ignite tensions between two countries whose ties have been tenuous since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan last summer.

The attack on the shrine sparked fears of retaliation from millions of Afghans living in Iran, with at least one vigilante attack on an Afghan man confirmed. Soon unconfirmed and graphic videos – some allegedly years old – of Iranians harassing Afghans began circulating on Afghan social media, sparking an anti-Iranian uproar in Afghanistan.

Amid the turmoil in Afghanistan, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in Herat and called for military action against Iran. Iran responded by suspending consular services in Afghanistan for 10 days.

At the same time, tensions at the border have been high as growing numbers of Afghans fleeing Taliban rule and a collapsing economy have sought refuge in neighboring Iran.

This week, after A report in Iranian media, Tehran sent troops and tanks near the border with Afghanistan after a reported skirmish broke out between border guards at the Islam-Qala checkpoint as the Taliban attempted to build a road on the border. The Taliban also deployed more forces at the border, Afghan media said.

The Taliban, a Sunni Muslim militant group, are suspicious of Iran, a regional Shia power that has previously supported opponents of the Taliban. Iran fears that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorists targeting Shia and Iran.

For the past year, Iran has been cautiously cultivating a policy of not officially recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government, instead maintaining diplomatic ties so as not to anger them.

“As tensions rise between Iran and Afghanistan, it’s getting worse for refugees in Iran because public opinion turns negative toward them,” said Dawood Qayomi, a former Afghan diplomat who served in Iran.

According to Iranian estimates, around five million Afghans now live in Iran. Most belong to two ethnic minorities – the Hazara, who are Shia Muslims, and the Tajik Afghans, who have strong cultural ties to Iran. Both have crossed the border for decades under threat of Taliban prosecution and in search of better economic opportunities.

The April 6 stabbings shocked the Iranians because terrorist attacks are extremely rare in the country and because the Imam Reza Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, is considered a safe haven.

The attack happened in the first week of the holy month of Ramadan. One of the clergymen died on the spot, another succumbed to his injuries a few days later, and the third survived with serious injuries to his hands and body, Iranian media reported. The surviving cleric described a chaotic scene in which the attacker reportedly stabbed him from behind and pursued him as he tried to escape.

Videos of the attack released in Iranian media show the clerics lying bleeding in the courtyard, people rushing to their aid and a crowd of onlookers arresting the attacker, beating and yelling at him before killing him handed over to security forces.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency identified the man as Abdulatif Moradi, a 21-year-old Afghan man of Uzbek descent who entered Iran illegally from Pakistan a year ago. He lived with his brother in Mashhad where both worked for a transport company. After his arrest, videos surfaced in which Mr Moradi described Shia Muslims as infidels.

The Taliban condemned and repulsed the attack. But within days, Afghans in Iran reported at least one unprovoked vigilante attack. Afghan workers, many of whom do not have work permits, have also complained about being paid wages and fear an increase in deportations.

“The refugees amidst these tensions are the ones who are being hurt,” said Abdul Hamid Ibrahimi, an Afghan student in Iran. “The Taliban are making the situation worse.”

More than a million Afghans have fled to Iran in recent months only to find an economy battered by sanctions, inflation and the coronavirus pandemic. Some Iranian officials say Iran cannot handle the influx of more migrants given the domestic problems it faces – a view shared by many ordinary Iranians.

“We have said many times that Iran cannot host millions of dear Afghans for many reasons such as economy, climate and social issues,” wrote Vahid Bahman, an Iranian historian, on Twitter, posting a video of a crowd of Afghans packing Tehran Landmark Azadi Square. “Border control is officially up in the air.”

A day after the killings, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi broke the Ramadan fast with Afghan students to defuse tensions. But the Taliban, critics say, have done the opposite.

Mawlawi Ziu-ur Rahman Asghar, a member of the Taliban’s Culture Committee, openly threatened Iran. “If Iran continues to oppress” Afghans, he tweeted on April 8, “then we should take military action against it.”

The Taliban leadership has not distanced itself from violent rhetoric against Iran, including Mr Asghar’s comment, critics say.

Acting Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, in a meeting with Bahadur Aminian, Iran’s envoy to Afghanistan, on April 10 called on Iran to prevent “abuse” of Afghan migrants. Mr Aminian said Iran has no intention of mistreating Afghans, according to Mr Muttaqi’s spokesman.

A day later, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in Herat, setting fire to its gate and throwing stones at it while chanting “Death to Iran.” Later this week, the Taliban further fueled tensions, critics say, by arresting a pro-Iranian Shia cleric who was delivering flowers after a protest at the Iranian embassy in Kabul.

By that time, Iran had suspended the services of its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan, called on the Taliban to protect their diplomatic outposts, and summoned Afghanistan’s top diplomats to Tehran. Iran has also called on the Taliban to protect the Shiites in Afghanistan.

But in the past week alone, two attacks have targeted Hazara Shiites in Afghanistan. One, claimed by an Islamic State affiliate, killed at least 10 people at a mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. Children were among the victims of the other attack, which included three explosions outside two different educational facilities and for which no one has yet claimed responsibility.

Fissures have existed between Iranians and Afghan immigrants over the years, but tensions have recently reached a new level. After the stabbings in Mashhad, vigilantes attacked a group of Afghans drinking tea and smoking hookahs in the town of Karaj. They beat and humiliated Afghans with knives, axes and bats, according to an Afghan man who lives in Karaj but asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. He said a friend was among the victims, including an Afghan man who was stabbed in the leg.

While there are many Iranians who welcome, help and employ Afghans, the undocumented majority face many challenges and hurdles in assimilation. Their plight is similar to that of undocumented migrants elsewhere – hard to find work, children face obstacles in enrolling in schools and many are subjected to ethnic profiling who are treated as suspects if crimes are committed in their neighborhoods.

But for many Afghans seeking refuge in Iran, there is no clear path forward. Turkey is building a wall along its border with Iran to prevent Afghans in particular from crossing the border and entering Europe. Returning to Afghanistan would mean facing the Taliban again.

Mohammad Behzad, an Afghan in Tehran, said the streets have become increasingly unsafe for migrants and he only leaves home to go to work in a garment factory.

“Everyone is worried and everyone wants to go,” he said. “They prefer to live in any country except Afghanistan and Iran.”

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