Iran-Taliban Relations and Shia Hazara in Afghanistan
The Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021, raising a lot of question marks about its future domestic and foreign policy. These policies come together in the attitude towards the Hazara Shia minority, which suffered during the last Taliban’s previous reign. This issue has international implications, as Iran sees itself as the defender of the Hazara, which accordingly plays a key role in the Taliban-Iranian relations. This article analyzes the state of the Hazara community in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and looks at its impact on relations between the authorities.
The Hazara Shias: Persecuted Minority
The origin of the Hazara, hence their name, is a mountainous region in central Afghanistan called the Hazarajat or Hazaristan (in Dari: هزارستان). The Hazara speak the Hazaragi, one of the Persian dialects, and most of them belong to the Twelver Shi'ism (the same as is prevalent in Iran). The persecution of the community, mainly on religious grounds, began during the reign of the Afghan King Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, who led the Hazara abuse, slavery, and executed many of them (especially between 1891-1893). Evidence from that period suggests that half of the population of the Hazara community was wiped out.
During the war in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion (1979-1989), the Hazara supported the anti-Soviet party forces ‘Hezb-e Wahdat’ ("the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan") which was defeated in Kabul by the Taliban in March 1995, leading many of the Hazara to immigrate from their homeland to other parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries. By 1998, when the Taliban was already the sovereign authority over large parts of Afghanistan, they completed their conquest of the city Mazar-a-Sharif, whose population was majority Hazara, and massacred 5,000-2,000 of them. With an extreme Sunni-Pashtun character, the Taliban saw the Shia population in Afghanistan as a central enemy, with a different religious and cultural perception, that should be condemned.
Even after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, various groups in the country continued to persecute the Hazara Shia minority, who felt like "second-class citizens" in Afghanistan and suffered from lack of rights and discrimination even under both the Hamid Karzai and the Ashraf Ghani governments. During these two decades, the Taliban carried out several attacks on the Hazara. In 2011 for example, suicide bombers blew themselves up at a community mosque in Kabul during Ashura Day (a Shia holy day), killing 59 people, and in October 2018 carried out several attacks in Ghazni and Uruzgan provinces in protest of Shia-backed government policies.
However, the group that has brought the Shia-Hazara to the fore since 2015 is the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), which only in the first half of 2021 resulted in the deaths and injuries of about 300 members of the community (according to a UNAMA report). One of the most memorable attacks from this period targeted the Hazara girls' school in Kabul, where about 85 girls were killed.
Today, the Hazara people in Afghanistan live mainly in the provinces of Bamyan, and Daikundi, but live in smaller numbers in other areas, including urban areas like Kabul and Mazar-a-Sharif. Although it is difficult to estimate their numbers accurately, foreigners in Afghanistan make up between 9-20% of the total population or about 4 million people.
Since the Taliban's return to power in August 2021, the international community has raised concerns about human rights abuses and attacks on the country's Hazara community. On the one hand, there are fears of Taliban harassment already documented by Hazara executions on August 30 and 31, 2021, and on the other hand, the main concern is from the ISKP, which enjoys the freedom of action in Afghanistan under the weak Taliban rule and continues to attack the Hazara community on a regular basis.
A major player interested in the Hazara Shia minority situation in Afghanistan is Iran, which sees itself as the defender of the Shias around the world and has been striving to export its Islamic revolution globally since 1979. Considering the ongoing persecution of Shias in general and the Hazara, in particular, in Afghanistan, relations between Iran and the Taliban have been explosive over the years and have even come close to an outright militant conflict.
One of the downturns in relations between the Taliban and Iran resulted from an incident on August 8, 1988. The Revolutionary Guards news agency in Iran reported that eight Iranian diplomats had been killed in Mazar a-Sharif after the Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate. In response to the incident, former “Quds Force” commander Qassem Suleimani planned to invade Afghanistan in cooperation with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, to occupy the Herat province, and take over Taliban resources. The operation’s purpose was to allow the forces to control Kabul and to reach the Shias living in the region.
According to reports, then-Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei gave Suleimani a 48-hour window to achieve this goal and make a quick withdrawal. Eventually, the operation was abandoned due to various reasons, including logistical and political concerns. Half a year later, Iranian representatives met with Taliban leaders, who pledged to prosecute those involved in the deadly operation. The Taliban, which at the time ruled most of Afghanistan, tried to lower the tensions, in an event known by Iranians to this day.
Nearly 33 years after the incident, on July 7, 2021, Iran for the first time led three-way peace talks with representatives of the Taliban and the previous Afghan government in light of the US withdrawal slated for August 31, 2021, in which it recognized both sides as legitimate and important. Iran has chosen to try and interfere in the (failed) peace process in Afghanistan due to several other regional interests of its own, such as reducing immigration into its territory through 945km of border, similarly preventing the spillage of terrorism, and of course various economic interests. On the other hand, the Taliban was preparing for the day it will return to power in Afghanistan and had taken preventive measures aimed at allaying Iranian fears. For example, in May 2021, the Taliban appointed a foreign Shia commander in the Balkhab district in the province of Sar-e Pol in what could be interpreted as a purely symbolic appointment.
Although past cases have shown that the Taliban does not have too much affection for its Shia relatives, it has realized that it has no choice but to try and get closer to Iran, and the first step in this is to preserve the security and rights of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan. Since seizing power in Kabul in August, the Taliban has been under severe international sanctions and desperately needs recognition as a legitimate authority in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghanistan is facing a severe economic crisis, with estimates indicating that 95% of its citizens eat less than three meals a day. In addition to all of this, the Taliban is facing deadly attacks from ISKP, which is only growing and increasing its activities, as well as enduring attacks from other opposition groups, which are making it difficult for the Taliban to run the country on a consistent basis. The bottom line is that the Taliban needs foreign help to secure its rule in Afghanistan, and neighboring Iran is perhaps one of their better options in this respect.
The Hazara Shia community in Afghanistan has been and continues to be the key to Iran-Taliban relations. First, Iran seeks to increase its influence in the Middle East and South Asian countries as it continues its policy of exporting of the Islamic Revolution, which it hopes to do with the help of the local Shia communities. The second reason is that the Hazara community is being persecuted by various elements in Afghanistan both by the Taliban regime and by extremist groups such as ISKP. This is likely to lead the Taliban to strengthen ties with Iran, which may, as a result, recognize it as a legitimate ruler over Afghanistan, reduce security-economic frictions with Iran, and receive economic and even security assistance.
However, a rapprochement between the two countries could lend a hand to the Iranians in establishing a proxy or additional base, given the shaky Taliban grip on the country, which would undermine Taliban sovereignty. On the other hand, if the Taliban does not take steps to eradicate violence and rights abuses targeting the Hazara community, Iran could act militarily to protect Shia minorities within Afghanistan, as it was close to doing in 1988, which would surely deepen the crisis in the country. Despite the Taliban's anti-Shite conception, it seems that in this case, it has no choice but to, as in the new Middle East, go with the interests and not with the ideology.