In early 1980s when Ayatollah Khomeini, the archetype and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, found his newly established Islamic regime in need of cheap labor to undertake a series of new construction and development projects, with a typically persuasive religious tone, he said: “Islam has no border.” Khomeini’s proverbial catchword wrapped in a sacred aura of the old soft-spoken Ayatollah, who had made an unchallenging reputation among Shias of the region, won hearts and minds of tens of thousands young Afghan labors, enticing them to find their ways to Iran’s labor market.
Reality, however, was far more different than devious words of the old Ayatollah who then was thinking about one thing: cheap labor. The Afghan labors, who were working in return for cheap payment with no life insurances roused anger among Iran’s labor forces—mainly the country’s minority Kurds who were intentionally kept out of the ring of mainstream market economy and power. A conflict of interest persisted to continue between the Afghan workers and their Kurd counterparts but the regime turned a blind eye on the anger among the Kurd labors, simultaneously exploited work forces of the Afghan labors.
When Iran, under Khomeini, came under attack by Saddam Hussein’s army, the Islamic Republic of Iran drummed a new incentive into naïve ears of Afghan migrants in Iran—mainly devotee Shia Afghans—and recruited thousands of young Afghans to fight Iran’s war against Saddam’s Iraq. Some Afghan fighters lost their lives and a number of them who survived were awarded with privileges such as long-term visas of Iran.
Recruitment of the desperate Afghans for Iran’s proxy war in Syria is a recent evidence of regime’s exploitation from Afghans’ predicament. Not all Afghans who were sent to Syria to fight Iran’s proxy were devoted Shias. A large number of the Afghan fighters, who fought in Syria, had escaped a dire poverty and government neglect at home.
No impartial observer of history can deny the constructive role that Afghan workers have played in Iran’s national development projects. For decades, tireless Afghan labors have kept the engine of Iran’s stone factory running albeit in return for cheap payment and no life insurance. Without physical exertion of Afghan workers Tehran’s beautiful stone texture would not look as beautiful as looks today. Iran’s poultry farming is run by shoulders of Afghan workers—again in return for cheap pay.
Border politics and migration policies of Islamic Republic of Iran, however, have always been very tough against the Afghan migrants. Many Afghan migrant families in Iran do not have the right to enroll their children in school, a policy that is Iran’s trademark in the region. Being an Afghan migrant in Iran has been a subject of mockery, even some xenophobic state-run TV shows, which were produced under regime’s cultural policy, made Afghan migrants a subject of mockery and schadenfreude in a humiliating way.
Most notorious of all, on May 02, some cellphone images, leaked to local media outlet, showed some corpses of Afghan workers, who while illegally crossing into Iran, were caught, beaten and drowned into a river by Iran’s border guard. Of over 50 Afghan migrants who were drowned in Harirud River, 18 are missing. Five dead bodies, including dead body of a child, were taken back to the western city of Herat.
But at odd to everyone’s surprise, insolent Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan refused any hand in the mass drowning of Afghan workers. A statement by Afghanistan ministry of foreign affairs, issued later on May 05, said that Kabul and Tehran had agreed to undertake a joint probe into killing of Afghans in border point between the two nations.
Innocent Afghan blood shed by Iran’s border guard remains an inerasable stigma on famous face of Sheikh Saadi.
Over last four decades Iran has hosted millions of Afghan migrants—some documented and others undocumented. For the time being, an estimated three million Afghan refugees are living in Iran. But cost of living for Afghan refugees in Iran has been burdensome, often with a deep life-long trauma. Majority of Afghans, who have experienced living in Iran, have a painful recollection both from the regime and the nation.
Iranian diplomats most often on international podiums recall a nostalgic memory of the Great Iran which used to the birthplace of great thinkers and philosophers such as Omer Khyyam, Hafiz Shirazi, Sheikh Saadi, and Maulana Jalaluddin Balkhi but little of the greatness—which they still pride them on—is seen when it comes to Iran’s treatment towards a poor war-stricken fellow Afghan nation.
No doubt, the world has always been a dangerous place for poor people and nations. Those nations with more wealth, resource and military power bully others with little wealth and resource. In social relationships of human beings power has always spoken louder than ethics. Like all human relationships, international relations are balanced by power.
The Iranian regime, by paying little compensation, may silence the Afghan government but innocent Afghan blood shed by Iran’s border guard remains an inerasable stigma on famous face of Sheikh Saadi who said: “Human beings are members of a whole, since in their creation they are of one essence. When the conditions of the time brings a member to pain, the other members will suffer from discomfort.”