By Samiullah Doorandesh
For long, the inhumane treatment of Afghan nationals by the Iranian authorities have gone largely unnoticed. The Afghan refugees and migrants working in Iran have been subject to physical and psychological abuse, unfair working conditions, discrimination and frequent detention. Now and then, visuals of such actions have surfaced on social media, despite its consistency and subsequent public censure, it had mostly failed to evoke an official response from the government. Successive Afghan governments have been nonchalant following up the incidents with their Iranian counterparts. It is this negligence that have led to the occurrence of a recent ghastly incident where more than 50 Afghan migrants, who had illegally crossed over to Iran to find work, were detained, beaten and thrown into the Harirud river. Among the unfortunate caravan, only 12 were able to swim for their survival, the rest were not so fortunate. The local authorities have reported about more than 10 dead bodies while some are still missing, feared to have been sailed away by the currents or drowned.
The viral footage circulated online across the social fora, showing the bodies of the deceased and accounts of the survivors, have sparked furious reactions among the civil society and masses. They have strongly condemned the actions, pressed the incumbent government and international human rights bodies to probe the incident and have initiated a debate questioning the loyalties of some prominent Afghan politicians who have been closely aligned with the regime.
The US embassy in Kabul, in a tweet, has highlighted the concerns of the Afghan people and government and the State Secretary, Mike Pompeo, has mentioned in a press release that both the American citizens and Afghans face the same Iranian brutality. He mentioned that he was appalled by hearing the news and has called upon the Afghan government to conduct thorough investigation and seek ways to hold the perpetrators accountable. In addition, the tweet of Alice Wells, acting U.S. assistant secretary, calling the reports ‘horrifying’ and treatment of Iranian border guards ‘cruel’, has elicited a response from foreign ministry of Iran who have called the US concerns a ‘bitter joke’. Though they have outrightly denied any involvement by tweeting that the matter is unrelated to Iran, they have agreed to conduct joint investigations.
It won’t be premature to assume that the investigations will yield in anything but consequential outcomes as the tweet suggests. Furthermore, affecting a change in the attitude of Iranian regime or holding the perpetrators accountable is just a far cry. More importantly, it must be kept in mind that, despite Iran’s brazen denial of the crime against humanity, this tragic incident and unsympathetic attitude of Iranian officials will have colossal implications on Afghanistan-Iran relations.
Afghanistan’s relations with Iran, at official level, has been of a calm nature as the landlocked geography of the former, Iran’s hosting of nearly one million refugees and reliance for access to sea ports, especially the nascent strategic Chabahar port, has made Afghanistan dependent on Iran more than ever. This detrimental territorial dependence has often muted serious reservations of successive Afghan governments often protesting against intervention of IRGC─Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps─ in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan and IRGC’s adverse activities mainly the recruitment of Shia fighters as proxies in Middle Eastern wars and the sponsoring of Taliban with military equipment to accelerate fight against the Afghan government.
On the other hand, despite the boasting of having historical linkages, bilateral relations or even people to people relations have not been up to the mark of bonhomie as the situation of refugees will clearly illustrate who are not even assured the provision of basic service of health and education despite living there for decades. Whether or not the circumstances for refugees improve, the impact of drowning incident has already made its blueprints. The meeting of Acting Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar with Iranian officials has concluded in a tense manner while it is too early to speculate what might have exchanged during the meeting at a time of great anger. In addition, governor of Herat, Syed Wahid Qatali, has stated it clearly that “we will settle this”. The drowning incident will further deteriorate the bilateral relations with the major brunt mainly targeting the Afghan refugees residing in Iran.
Iran, envisaging a dominant role in the politics of the region, has been successful to muster considerable influence in Afghan politics owing to the cooptation of some Afghan politicians at the high echelon of power. These protégé are time and time again manipulated to weaken the government in Afghanistan and even used to pressure government to step back from infrastructure projects impacting Iran’s national and regional interests. Afghan intelligentsia have been criticizing these political figures to recalibrate their loyalties. In the long term, incidents like these will prove deleterious for Iran and more specifically the IRGC.
The incident has taken place in a crucial period of time when the outbreak of Covid-19 epidemic has endangered the lives of millions around the globe. Both Iran, due to the economic sanctions, and Afghanistan, due to lack of sufficient health services, are in difficult positions to tackle the epidemic. The incident has occurred untimely where both neighboring countries need to put concerted efforts to tackle the threats of Covid-19 and ensure effective border management to thwart its further spread.
Engagement and cooperation are the need of the hour to ensure that incidents like these does not happen again. The perpetrators must be held accountable by the Iranian regime as such actions are not only irresponsible but also unparalleled with the traits of a civilized nation.
Samiullah Doorandesh is an Afghan researcher at Quaid-i-Azam University who writes about Afghan politics, foreign relations and security. He can be reached at Samiullah.firstname.lastname@example.org