While it has endeared itself in the hearts of many Muslims around the world as the Muslim country with a backbone, Iran is failing in the battle of hearts and minds in its own backyard. From its mistreatment of Afghan refugees to blocking the supply of much-needed fuel in the dead of the unforgiving Afghan winter, it is angering Afghans of all stripes.
Iran is sandwiched by heavy American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, its western and eastern neighbors respectively. As a result, it is actively competing for influence with the US and other regional and international powers in these countries. In Afghanistan, it turns out, that competition sometimes manifests itself in less-than-subtle ways.
While the US and its allies do the fighting and carry out nation-building through dollar-heavy infrastructure projects, Iran does religious outreach, most ostensibly through its mammoth madrassah and mosque in the heart of Kabul. Iran also exports cheap consumer products to Afghanistan and absorbs thousands of Afghans in low-skilled jobs. It has hosted 2 to 3 million Afghan refugees for several decades, including during the civil war of the 90s and the Taliban rule.
One would imagine that Iran has carved itself a special place in the hearts of Afghans, but the reality is different. Its decision to block fuel tankers from entering Afghanistan was the latest in a series of public diplomacy errors from Iran. According to Afghanistan's commerce minister, about 2,400 tons of fuel, mostly from Iraq, entered Afghanistan through Iran until early last December. That supplied about half of Afghanistan's domestic fuel needs. But Iran's two-month blockade sent food and fuel prices up by as much as 70% in some parts of Afghanistan.
That's a dramatic rise in prices in a country where inflation is among the lowest in Asia, measured by the World Bank last year to be at around 2%. The price jump is especially critical because about 37% percent of the population is "on the borderline of food insecurity," as measured by the World Food Program. Winter poses an especially stark challenge for Afghan families as they have to triage their meager resources between food and heating in a country where sub-zero temperatures and snow extend for several months.
The real extent of damage from the blockade on ordinary Afghans is not fully clear yet, but protests across Afghanistan are an indicator that many people are feeling the pinch. There have been several protests in the capital Kabul, with protestors making their point by hurling eggs at the Iranian consulate. Herat province, which is a major transit point between the two countries, has seen the highest price hikes; accordingly, it saw protracted anti-Iran protests. Herat is culturally closer to Iran than other Afghan provinces, and protests in that province are an indicator of Herat residents' displeasure with the blockade.
For its part, Iran explained the blockade variously as a technical glitch and an attempt to prevent its border from being used as a fuel supply route for NATO, alleging that the tankers ship fuel to the international forces in Afghanistan. NATO denied it uses fuel shipped through Iran.
Regardless of the claims and the reasons, the fuel shortage did not make Iran popular in the minds of Afghans. And that is not the only factor affecting Iran's image in Afghanistan.
Many among the millions of Afghan refugees who lived in Iran faced discrimination and harassment in the hands of security personnel and, sometimes, ordinary Iranians. While some resentment might be natural against foreign workers among the Iranian population (itself facing chronic high unemployment) the Iranian government appears to have often violated basic human rights of Afghan refugees.
Many Afghans were denied schooling, especially post-secondary education. Stories of torture and mistreatment are common among the Afghans who attempted to illegally enter Iran for employment. Some even report deaths of friends or acquaintances in detention centers. Many of these cases remain undocumented by human rights organizations due to the closed nature of the Iranian government.
After the fall of the Taliban, Iran started repatriating Afghans. Blurring the boundaries between voluntary and involuntary repatriation and legal and illegal immigrants, Iran expelled thousands of Afghans, ignoring requests to the contrary by the Afghan foreign ministry citing Afghanistan's lack of absorptive capacity for the deluge of returnees. Some returnees complained of being arbitrarily picked up from the streets and expelled, being refused a chance to pack their belongings or get their final paychecks. Some reported being separated from their families as a result of their expulsion.
The wave of expelled Afghan refugees prompted vocal protests against Iran's handling of the repatriation process.
Public displeasure with the Iranian government was heightened again last year as reports surfaced in Afghanistan that as many as 5,000 Afghans are held in Iranian prisons, some on allegations of drug smuggling and petty crimes, others on unspecified charges. A request to Iran by the Afghan government to provide details on the prisoners was denied. Pictures allegedly showing young Afghan men being hanged in Iran went viral on the internet, making their way to Facebook and sparking another wave of anti-Iran protests.
This year, protests sprang up again in several major Afghan cities against Iran's alleged continued execution of Afghan prisoners in its jails.
Dealing with two million refugees with varying immigration statuses and backgrounds is a complicated task, especially when Iran simultaneously combats the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan. However, neighboring Pakistan has done a much better job of coordinating repatriation with the UNHCR. Even before the repatriation process, Afghan refugees in Pakistan enjoyed far greater freedoms with comparatively little harassment from security organs.
Without a doubt, the fuel blockade, combined with Iran's treatment of Afghans, has left its image in need of repair.
But given Afghanistan's weak government and its dependency on Iranian help, Iran is unlikely to have serious diplomatic problems with Afghanistan. Whereas the Afghan chamber of commerce vowed to stop trading with Iran and about 200,000 Afghans in Kabul signed a petition condemning the fuel restrictions, the government only issued a muted response -- the commerce minister said he was "not happy" with Iran.
Regardless, ordinary Afghans perceive Iran very differently from many other Muslims around the world. In a world where perceptions matter, Iran's public diplomacy in Afghanistan needs to be overhauled.