How will Kabul and Tehran respond to the drowning of Afghan migrants?
Kabul and Tehran have agreed to investigate the torturing and drowning of a dozen Afghans on the Iranian-Afghan border. The incident was widely reported in the Afghan media. Parliamentarians, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and civil society activists have reacted to this incident. In response to the “drowning of Afghans”, a number of Herati residents also protested in front of the governor's office. Reacting to the incident, the Afghan Foreign Ministry has promised to look into the news that a number of Afghans had been drowned by Iranian border guards, and Tehran has agreed to cooperate with the Afghan Foreign Ministry's fact-finding commission.
The news of the drowning of a dozen Afghans comes as relations between Kabul and Tehran are improving. Following the signing of an agreement to end the war between the United States and the Taliban on February 29, the Islamic Republic of Iran is concerned about further Taliban takeover. Iran increased its support for the Taliban in 2018-2015. During those years, Iran hosted Taliban representatives in Tehran several times. The Iranian embassy in Kabul repeatedly said that Tehran had established ties with the Taliban for “control and intelligence” purposes. Sources close to the Taliban have made it very clear that Tehran considers the Taliban as its ally in the fight against ISIS. The relations between Iran and the Taliban had damaged the relations between Kabul and Tehran. But with the signing of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, Iran feels that a stronger Taliban is no longer in its best interest.
Tehran believes that if the Taliban becomes more powerful, Shiite forces inside Afghanistan will become isolated and security problems in Iran's Sunni areas will arise. Iran's concern over further Taliban takeover has brought Tehran closer to Kabul once again. By sending the experienced Iranian diplomat, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, to Kabul, Iran tried to bring Abdullah Abdullah's faction closer to the Arg Presidential Palace and pave the way for an agreement between Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and the former chief executive (Abdullah Abdullah).
The alignment of all political forces and influential figures with the government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani pushes the Taliban toward political isolation. All countries and forces concerned about the Taliban's rise to power see the solution in further alignment of Afghan political forces with the government. In recent weeks, Iran has also tried to bring Abdullah Abdullah's faction closer to the Arg Presidential Palace. The government also allowed Iran's special envoy to stay in Kabul for a longer time and negotiate with various factions and politicians. The Afghan government has even banned propaganda against Liwa Fatemiyoun broadcast by some media outlets to prevent any misunderstandings with Iran. But the incident of Afghans being drowned in the river at the hands of Iranian border forces has severely damaged Iran's popularity among the Afghan people. The incident has also made it difficult for those Afghan officials who are trying to create more alignment between Kabul and Tehran.
One of the officials working in this direction is the Afghan Foreign Minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar. Atmar has close ties to some Iranian officials. He had a close relationship with Qassem Soleimani when he served as President Ghani's national security adviser. Mohammad Hanif Atmar expressed his condolences to Tehran over the killing of Qassem Soleimani. At the time, Hanif Atmar was not a foreign minister, but his condolences over Soleimani's death showed that he attached great importance to his relations with Iranian officials. At his inauguration ceremony, the Afghan Foreign Minister also said that his goal was to gain the collective support of the countries in the region for the government's peace plan. As the Afghan Foreign Ministry investigates the drowning of Afghan migrants in Harirod River, it has become increasingly difficult for Atmar to establish a partnership with Tehran. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is under pressure from the public to issue a statement urging Iranian officials to comment on the incident on Iranian soil.
Most politicians close to Tehran are on Abdullah Abdullah's side. Abdullah is close to reaching an agreement with Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, Iran's special envoy for Afghanistan, encouraged Abdullah's faction to reach an agreement with Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and form a united front for the possible negotiations with the Taliban. However, the news of the drowning of Afghan migrants by Iranian border forces has put the prominent political figures in Abdullah's faction under serious pressure from the public to react to the news. It is unclear how long these politicians will resist these pressures.
In Afghanistan, it is widely believed that despite the common language and culture, some institutions and officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran have a contemptuous view of the Afghan people. This humiliating view, backed by some racist assumptions, has led Iranian security and military forces to violently crackdown on Afghan migrants.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has extensive influence in Afghanistan's political relations. In the past two decades, Tehran has sought to increase its influence in Afghanistan by building ties with politicians, popular figures and a number of media outlets. But these efforts have failed to improve the image of the Iranian government among the general Afghan people. In case of a politically prudent reaction from the governments of Afghanistan and Iran to the recent incident, the image of Iran and its friends in Afghanistan will be further damaged and the Taliban will benefit from it.