Iranian Influence in Afghanistan
Refugees as Political Instruments

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No. 5, November 2010

This is the second in a series of Middle Eastern Outlooks documenting Iran's growing influence in Afghanistan.

As the United States and its allies target the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran is using the forced return of Afghan refugees to leverage its influence in Afghanistan at the expense of U.S. interests. Waves of refugees cause humanitarian crises and are used to shield the movement of foreign terrorists into Afghanistan. This Outlook examines how the Iranian government systematically uses forced repatriation of Afghans living in Iran both to undermine U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and to extract concessions from the Afghan government.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Iranian influence in Afghanistan is not benign; its forced repatriation of Afghans living in Iran destabilizes western Afghanistan.
  • By threatening to flood Afghanistan with waves of refugees, the Iranian government forces the Afghan government to comply with its demands.
  • U.S. aid to Afghanistan must take into account the millions of refugees living outside the country.

Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, millions of Afghans poured into neighboring countries. While Pakistan hosted the greatest number of refugees, Iran had taken in about 3 million Afghans by 1990.[1] Many Afghans returned to Afghanistan following the end of communist rule, but a second wave of refugees fled the country with the outbreak of civil war after the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of Soviet-backed president Mohammad Najibullah's government in 1992. More than 5 million Afghan refugees returned to Afghanistan after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, but many Afghans still live abroad.[2] According to the Iran Statistical Center, Afghans constitute the largest group of legal foreign residents in Iran. By November 1996, they numbered eight hundred thousand, a sum that increased 50 percent over the next decade. With migrant workers and illegal immigrants, however, the number of Afghans living in Iran today may reach 2.5 million.[3]


Iran and Pakistan treated their Afghan refugees differently. While Pakistan kept Afghans in refugee camps, Iran allowed them to live across the country and took formal responsibility for them in the 1980s and 1990s, giving only a limited role to the United Nations refugee agency and other international humanitarian organizations. Although Iran is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it did not grant the Afghans fleeing the Soviet occupation refugee status (panahandeh) and instead classified them as "involuntary religious migrants" (mohajerin). Indeed, the term mohajerin was more dignified than panahandeh in postrevolutionary Iran,[4] and Iranian leaders often described helping Afghan refugees as the country's Islamic and humanitarian duty.

Iran's Interior Ministry officially coordinates responsibility for refugees, usually under the Secretariat of the Coordination Council of Alien Affairs, which the interior minister chairs. The secretariat brings together the ministers of education, intelligence, foreign affairs, labor, and health, along with the Administration and Planning Organization director, the Supreme National Security Council secretary, the Law Enforcement Forces chief, and the head of the Red Crescent of Iran.[5] Generally, the interior and intelligence ministries treat alien residents first and foremost as a security issue. The Revolutionary Guards and the Law Enforcement Forces provide muscle to any regulation or policy. The Supreme National Security Council is also involved in domestic refugee policy as an instrument of foreign policy. While the Interior Ministry's Bureau for Alien and Foreign Immigrant Affairs supervises visas and residency permits, it coordinates closely with the Revolutionary Guards and the local branch of the Revolutionary Tribunal on a provincial level.[6]

The number of Afghans living in Iran today may reach 2.5 million.

With the fall of the Taliban's regime and the inauguration of a Western-backed government in Afghanistan, the Iranian government took a tough line with the Afghan refugees. "It is now time for them to return," said Ahmad Hosseini, the senior Interior Ministry official dealing in refugee affairs, in March 2002. "Registered Afghan nationals will be gradually repatriated in a two-year program." Unregistered Afghans were given six months to leave Iran.[7] In April 2002, Iran signed a trilateral agreement with Afghanistan and the UN's High Commission for Refugees to facilitate repatriation of Afghans.[8] By April 2004, 730,000 Afghans had returned to Afghanistan.[9]

With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ascent to power in August 2005, the Iranian government stepped up forcible repatriation of Afghans. On March 12, 2006, Hosseini announced that 350,000 Afghans had been forcibly repatriated in 2005 and warned that the Iranian government would apply "new measures" against Afghans who resisted.[10] Forced evictions continued over subsequent years, and, in January 2008, Taghi Ghaemi, Hosseini's replacement at the Interior Ministry, threatened the 1.5 million "illegal Afghans" in Iran with "five years of imprisonment" or "internment in camps" if they refused repatriation.[11]

The Ahmadinejad government also imposed stringent restrictions on Afghans inside Iran. Since May 2007, Afghans have been banned from living in certain Iranian provinces and cities, such as border towns in the east.[12] They were banned from the southwestern Kohgiluyeh va Boyerahmad province in July 2007 and the Caspian littoral Gilan province in May 2008.[13] The list has continued to grow through this year such that, at present, Afghan citizens are entirely prohibited from living in thirteen provinces, with many cities in other provinces also off limits.[14] The government has also imposed education and employment restrictions on Afghans.[15]

Iranian leaders often justify their actions by citing problems Afghan refugees cause in Iran: unemployment, drug trade, and related criminal activity in the Iranian border provinces. Afghan officials, however, allege that Iran is using the refugees as a destabilizing political tool against Afghanistan.

Refugees as a Political Tool

The Ahmadinejad government successfully uses the refugee issue to increase its leverage over Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan. Whenever Afghanistan's policies displease Tehran, the Iranian government threatens to expel all Afghans living in Iran. Tehran understands that the fragile Afghan government lacks the capacity to absorb a large number of returnees under current security and economic conditions. At times, it has dumped thousands of Afghans into lawless areas in western Afghanistan without advance coordination with either Afghan authorities or international organizations. Such mass deportations trigger humanitarian crises, undermine security in southern and western Afghanistan, and cause political turmoil in Kabul.

In 2007, for example, the Afghan parliament impeached Karzai's ministers for refugees and foreign affairs after Iran forcibly repatriated over eighty thousand Afghans. The impeachments, directed by Iranian supporters within the parliament, sparked a constitutional crisis in Kabul, as Karzai rejected the parliament's dismissal of Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Spanta said that Iran moved forward with the expulsions to protest Afghanistan's acquiescence to a formal NATO military presence in Afghanistan, to compel Afghanistan to support Iran's nuclear program, and to ensure Iran's access to Helmand River waters flowing into Iran.[16] Only after Karzai made a personal appeal to Ahmadinejad did Tehran halt the deportations.[17] It is unclear what concessions Kabul offered Tehran.

Deportations soon resumed, however. In December 2008, under pressure from parliament, Karzai sent a delegation led by Vice President Karim Khalili to negotiate a settlement over the refugee issue. Iranian leaders exploited the situation to launch verbal attacks against the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani told the visiting Afghan delegation, "After seven years, the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan has not only failed to bring security and stability, but has undermined security and increased extremism."[18] Tehran eventually agreed to suspend expulsions, but only until spring.

Mass deportations have also undermined security in southern and western Afghanistan. Nimruz governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad has complained that Iran expels hundreds of Afghans daily to Nimruz,[19] and provincial officials acknowledge that they cannot cope with the influx of returnees. Neither the U.S. Army nor its NATO allies operate a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Nimruz, and the province has seen little economic development in recent years. On May 10, 2010, Amrullah Sultani, top official for Afghan refugees and returnees in Nimruz, said the Iranian government had expelled over sixty thousand Afghan refugees to the province over two months without coordinating with the provincial officials.[20] Iran also deports thousands of refugees to the Herat province each month.[21] In March and April 2010 alone, Iran deported some thirty thousand Afghans to Herat through the Islam Qala border crossing.[22] In other words, Iran systematically uses forcible repatriation of Afghan refugees and migrant workers to spark a humanitarian and security crisis in the western parts of Afghanistan. In doing so, the Islamic Republic is telling Kabul that the key to western Afghanistan's security is in Tehran, not in Washington, D.C. This shows that Iran is positioning itself to have a presence in the region long after U.S. forces leave

The Islamic Republic is telling Kabul that the key to western Afghanistan's security is in Tehran, not in Washington, D.C.

Iran has also used mass deportations to facilitate infiltration of foreign terrorists into western Afghanistan. Afghan border guards in Islam Qala, the main border crossing between Iran and Herat, say there are no procedures to monitor returnees and check their nationality: "We have caught Arab and Iranian citizens trying to enter Afghanistan without the proper documentation, and have turned them over to the National Directorate of Security. But we cannot check everybody so carefully. We do not have enough officers, or the right equipment," said Abdullah Achakzai, a border police officer, adding that the border police had captured an Iranian citizen pretending to be an Afghan refugee. "He had maps with him of Herat airport and other documents concerning the 207th Zafar [Afghan National Army] corps."[23] Herat's police chief Ismatullah Alizai said last year that over fifty foreigners--among them Iranians, Pakistanis, and Chechens--had been identified in the Gozara and Pashtun Zarghon districts of Herat. "Two Iranian citizens were arrested during a police operation against anti-government militants in Gozara district," he pointed out. "We turned them over to the National Directorate of Security for further investigation."[24] The number of foreign terrorists intercepted by the Afghan border-security forces while trying to infiltrate Afghanistan from the Iranian border may be only the tip of the iceberg, which suggests Islamic Republic involvement in a more systematic effort.

There are indeed some indications of this organized effort. Last September, the independent daily Afghanpaper reported that eighteen Iranian Kurds, including four women, had entered the Seyoshaan village near Herat to train in suicide bombing. The would-be suicide bombers, according to the paper, were in the residence of Bashir Ahmad Qena'at, the son-in-law of Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a local commander aligned with the Taliban and with alleged links to Iran, whom a U.S. airstrike in early 2009 reportedly killed.[25] Two weeks later, Afghan police also claimed they had discovered a training base of suicide bombers in Seyoshaan village run by Iranians, Pakistanis, and a few Arabs.[26]

It is not only through forced repatriation of Afghan refugees and migrant workers that the Islamic Republic destabilizes western Afghanistan. Sometimes, Tehran reverses the game. In October 2009, Iran temporarily opened its border to allow several hundred Afghans to enter Iran through Herat's Dogharoon border point without visas or passports. As soon as it was rumored that Iran had loosened its border control, thousands of Afghans from all over western Afghanistan stormed Herat only to find the border closed. The frustrated Afghans directed their anger not at Iran, but at Afghan authorities, whom they blamed for trying to deny them access to Iran.[27]


With the security situation in Afghanistan at its nadir since the fall of the Taliban and economic-development and job-creation efforts faltering, Iranian leaders correctly calculate that a fragile Afghanistan cannot absorb the over 2 million Afghans living in Iran. Iranian mistreatment and forced repatriation of Afghan refugees and migrant workers further undermines the credibility of the Kabul government and increases Kabul's dependence on the regime in Tehran. Unless the international community devises a comprehensive development strategy for Afghanistan--such as providing housing, social services, schools, and help with reintegration into Afghan society--that takes into account the hundreds of thousands of Afghan returnees, Tehran will continue to play the refugee card to pressure Kabul and harm U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Ahmad Majidyar ([email protected]) is a senior research associate at AEI. Ali Alfoneh ([email protected]) is a resident fellow at AEI.

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1. David Turton and Peter Marsden, Taking Refugees for a Ride? The Politics of Refugee Return to Afghanistan (Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, December 2002), 1.

2. UN Refugee Agency, "2010 UNHCR Country Operations Profile--Afghanistan," available at texis/vtx/page?page=49e486eb6 (accessed October 6, 2010).

3. "Amar-e Eshteghal-e Atba'e Afghan Dar Iran" [Employment Statistics of Afghan Citizens in Iran], Alef News Agency, December 19, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed October 14, 2010).

4. Rhoda Margesson, Afghan Refugees: Current Status and Future Prospects (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2007), available at (accessed October 6, 2010).

5. Ibid.

6. "Ghanoun Raje' Be Ta'in-e Vazaef Va Tashkilat-e Showra-ye Amniat-e Keshvar" [The Law on Division of Duties of the National Security Council], Hafezeh-ye Ghavanin, available in Persian at (accessed October 14, 2010).

7. "Iran Says Time for Afghan Refugees to Go Home," Reuters, March 6, 2002.

8. "Violence Halts Afghan Refugee Flow," BBC, April 9, 2002.

9. "730,000 Mohajer-e Afghan Az Iran Be Keshvar Bazgashtand" [730,000 Afghan Refugees Leave Iran for Afghanistan], Vezarat-e Keshvar, May 23, 2007, available in Persian at 1ccb27ea-dce7-45b5-b951-5108afc82bc&CategoryID=a25b3683- 80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010).

10. "Emsal 350000 Taba'eh-ye Afghani-ye Gheir-e-Mojaz-e Saken Dar Iran Be Keshvareshan Bazgardandeh Shodand" [This Year 350,000 Illegal Afghan Citizens in Iran Were Repatriated], Vezarat-e Keshvar, May 23, 2007, available in Persian at a25b3683-80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010); and "Siasatha-ye Jadid-e Iran Dar Mored-e Mohajeran-e Afghan" [Iran's New Policies towards Afghan Refugees], BBC Persian, February 19, 2006, available in Persian at (accessed October 14, 2010).

11. "Iran Yek Va Nim Million Mohajer-e Afghan Ra Be Zendan Tahdid Kard" [Iran Threatened One and a Half Million Afghan Refugees with Imprisonment], BBC Persian, January 2, 2008, available in Persian at story/2008/01/080102_s-iran-afghan-refugees.shtml (accessed October 14, 2010).

12. "Shahr-ha-ye Marzi-ye Shargh-e Keshvar Baraye Sokounat-e Atba'e Biganeh Mamnoue' E'lam Shod" [Residence of Foreign Nationals Declared Prohibited in Border Towns in Eastern Parts of the Country], Vezarat-e Keshvar, May 23, 2007, available in Persian at ShowPage.aspx?Object=News&ID=7d0a279d-137e-47e2-9aeb-77841df24f4c&WebPartID=1ccb27ea-dce7-45b5-b951-d5108afc82bc&CategoryID=a25b3683-80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010).

13. "Mamnou'iat-e Eghamat-e Avaregan-e Afghan Dar Ostan-e Kohgilouyeh Va Boyer-Ahmad" [Ban against Residence of Afghan Refugees in Kohgiluyeh Va Boyerahmad Province], Vezarat-e Keshvar, July 23, 2007, available at Portal/Home/ShowPage.aspx?Object=News&ID=2e1cc615-3f63-4707-944e-df50c7c6b039&WebPartID=1ccb27ea-dce7-45b5-b951-d5108afc82bc&CategoryID=a25b3683-80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010); and "Tarradod Va Sokounat-e Atba'e Afghani Dar Gilan Az Avval-e Tirmah Mamnou'e Ast" [Prohibition against Afghan Citizens Residing or Trespassing Gilan from July], Vezarat-e Keshvar, May 17, 2008, available in Persian at .aspx?Object=News&ID=9e50aecd-a683-4949-b924-1f6941f9c 4a6&WebPartID=1ccb27ea-dce7-45b5-b951-d5108afc82bc& CategoryID=a25b3683-80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010).

14. "Eghamat-e Afghan-ha Dar Khonj-e Fars Mamnou'e E'lam Shod" [Residence of Afghans Declared Illegal in Khonj in Fars Province], Vezarat-e Keshvar, November 15, 2008, available in Persian at Object=News&ID=64eb968f-4d2c-4337-a93e-65fa897d18f2& WebPartID=1ccb27ea-dce7-45b5-b951-d5108afc82bc&CategoryID=a25b3683-80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010); "Eghamat Va Tarradod-e Atba'e Afghan Dar 23 Shahr-e Golestan Mamnou'e Shod" [Residence and Trespassing of Afghan Citizens Prohibited in 23 Cities of Golestan Province], Vezarat-e Keshvar, January 16, 2010, available in Persian at Object=News&ID=3bbdf712-e760-4f6f-ad7e-06a46d42d50d &WebPartID=1ccb27ea-dce7-45b5-b951-d5108afc82bc&CategoryID=a25b3683-80cc-48ec-810c-29ca2ea14479 (accessed October 14, 2010); "Tarh-e Jame'-e Samandehi-ye Afghan-ha-ye Gheir-e-Mojaz Aghaz Shod" [The Expansive Improvement Scheme of Illegal Afghan Citizens Begins], Iranian Students News Agency, July 24, 2010, available in Persian at (accessed October 14, 2010); and "Manategh-e Mamnoueh-ye Iran Bara-ye Eghamat-e Atba'e Khareji" [Prohibited Areas in Iran for Foreign Nationals], E'temad, October 20, 2008, available in Persian at (accessed October 14, 2010).

15. "Manategh-e Mamnoueh-ye Eghamat Va Tahsil Bara-ye Atba'e-e Khareji" [Prohibited Areas for Education and Residence of Foreign Nationals], Sazeman-e Bakhsh-e Amouzesh-e Keshvar, April 24, 2010, available in Persian at (accessed October 14, 2010).

16. Amin Tarzi, "Iran: Poker-Faced amid Allegations of Interference in Afghanistan," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 12, 2007.

17. Brian Bennet: "Iran Raises the Heat in Afghanistan," Time, February 22, 2008, available at article/0,8599,1716579,00.html (accessed October 14, 2010).

18. "Larijani: Hozour-e Khareji Amel-e Roshd-e Efratgarayi Dar Afghanestan Ast" [Larijani: Foreign Presence Is the Reason behind Extremism in Afghanistan], BBC Persian, December 22, 2008, available in Persian at 2008/12/081222_he-kalili_larijani.shtml (accessed September 1, 2010).

19. "Afghan Refugees Complain about Harassment by Pakistan, Iranian Police," Tolo TV, April 23, 2009.

20. "Afghan Official Accuses Iran of Expelling 60,000 Afghan Refugees," Afghan Islamic Press, May 10, 2010; and "Iran Deports Over 50,000 Afghan Refugees," Arzu TV, May 10, 2010.

21. "Afghan Refugees Complain about Harassment by Pakistan, Iranian Police."

22. "Iran Bish Az Hashtad Hezar Panahjou-ye Afghan Ra Ekhraj Kard" [Iran Repatriates More Than Eighty Thousand Afghan Refugees], 8 Sobh, April 28, 2010, available in Persian at (accessed September 1, 2010).

23. Zia Ahmadi and Mustafa Saber, "Afghans Fear Infiltra-tion from Iran," Asia Times, November 13, 2009, available at (accessed September 1, 2010).

24. Zia Ahmadi and Mustafa Saber, "Afghans Fear Insurgent Infiltration across Iran Border," Institute for War and Peace Reporting, November 11, 2009.

25. "18 Kord-e Irani Bara-ye Amouzesh-e Hamelat-e Entehari Vared-e Herat Shodeh-and" [Eighteen Iranian Kurds Have Entered Herat for Suicide Training], Afghanpaper, September 27, 2009, available at (accesed September 1, 2010).

26. "18 Kord-e Irani Bara-ye Amouzesh-e Hamelat-e Entehari Vared-e Herat Shodeh-and" [Eighteen Iranian Kurds Have Entered Herat for Suicide Training].

27. "Khabar-e Fori: Bedoun-e Viza Be Iran Beravid?!" [Immediate Release: Travel to Iran without Visa?!] Afghanpaper, October 4, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed October 20, 2010).

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.


Ahmad K.

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