Iran’s rugged frontiers with Afghanistan and Pakistan have, for centuries, witnessed a regular flow of people and goods. Cross-border ethnic, tribal and cultural linkages forged before the demarcation of national boundaries have taken root, and continue to influence events in all three countries. However, growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, enmeshed in intense geopolitical rivalry, is posing serious new threats to Iran’s internal cohesion and external security.
The recent spike in violence in Afghanistan has triggered a fresh wave of refugees into Iran. “The situation is becoming alarming again. Every day, 2,000-4,000 refugees are entering Iran from Afghanistan. That amounts to a monthly addition of 1,20,000 refugees,” Carlos Zaccagnini, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Iran, told The Hindu recently.
Besides, a bumper poppy harvest in Afghanistan is posing new challenges as Iran is the gateway for transit of narcotics into Europe, the Persian Gulf and West Asia. Besides, smuggling of contraband has serious domestic implications, with drug abuse among youth becoming rampant. The escalation of violence in Iran’s Sistan-Balochestan province, which in large measure is attributed to the smuggling of drugs, has also become a major source of tension along the Iran-Pakistan border.
Mr. Zaccagnini pointed out that Iran had faced at least three waves of refugees from Afghanistan since 1979. They first began pouring in when Soviet troops moved into the country. The second wave started in the mid-1990s, when the Taliban established itself in the country. Many of the refugees were ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras, who have traditionally been influenced by the Persian language and culture. The third wave, which began recently, is the result of the deteriorating security situation yet again. “The world is refusing to recognise that once again, Afghanistan has become a refugee-producing state. Unless this mental block is removed, a fresh approach to meet this huge challenge will not be conceived,” Mr. Zaccagnini observed.
Iran’s approach to tackling its refugee crisis has been avowedly rooted in Islamic principles. After the 1979 revolution, it pursued the ideology that Islam has no borders and, therefore, all Muslims are welcome in Islamic lands. As a result, nearly four million Afghans poured into Iran after Russian soldiers pushed into Afghanistan. However, practical considerations forced Iran to modify its approach towards refugees in later years, notwithstanding its commitment to ideological tenets.
For instance, Iran simply did not have the finances to bear the burden of such a large inflow of refugees. Western hostility to the Iranian revolution has also meant inability to secure significant humanitarian aid from abroad. Mr. Zaccagnini pointed out that there was no problem in getting international aid for Afghanistan and for refugees in Pakistan. But in the case of Iran, it has been an entirely different story. Cultural factors, too, have inhibited the flow of humanitarian assistance to Iran. The Iranians are too proud to ask for aid. But there is a view in Tehran that Iranians resent the fact that the world has not acknowledged the Herculean task they have performed virtually single-handed.
Iran has absorbed almost a million Afghan refugees into its workforce, many of them engaged in construction activity, on farms, as municipal workers or as housemaids. However, the fate of nearly two million Afghans who have not been registered continues to remain uncertain. Without external support, Iran is finding it difficult to register additional refugees, as this gesture would entitle them to rights which have significant financial implications. So, Iran in the past deported unregistered refugees, leading to harsh international criticism which many, in the prevailing circumstances, see as unfair.
Human rights groups in Iran have been active in seeking fair treatment for refugees. Rights activist and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi has been advocating that refugees, who have married in Iran or have had children there, be provided with full legal status. UNHCR officials say children born of an Iranian father and an Afghan mother have not faced significant problems with social integration. But children born of an Afghan father and an Iranian mother face an uphill task. Recently, the government decided that their status be legalised after they turn 18.
Dr. Ebadi is opposed to forced repatriation. However, taking a comprehensive view of the problem, she strongly advocates better border management to ensure that the Afghans who voluntarily seek repatriation do not return. Given the paucity of international humanitarian aid and the difficult security situation in Afghanistan, she has also urged foreign, mainly western governments, to accept in greater numbers, refugees stranded in Iran.The drug menace
Iran is on the frontline of the war against the international flow of drugs originating from Afghanistan. Opium production in Afghanistan in 2007 hit a record high of 8,200 tonnes, amounting to nearly 92 per cent of the total world output. In poverty-stricken Afghanistan, the export of opiates fetches an astounding $4 billion in the international market. Nearly 66 per cent of opium is produced in southern Afghanistan, with the Hilmand province producing the bulk.
Iran is part of the Balkan route that includes Pakistan, Turkey and the Balkan countries, used for the export of drugs. Its prominence is evident as nearly 80 per cent of opium seizures in the world have been made in Iran. Adopting a proactive stance, Iran has mounted a major effort to confront drug barons offloading Afghan supplies into the world. It has suffered heavy losses in the process — about 3,700 Iranian security personnel were killed and 11,000 disabled between 1989 and 2003 in battles with the drug gangs. Fighting has been intense as private armies attached to the drug lords use sophisticated weapons, including rocket launchers, heavy machine guns and Kalashnikovs in their engagement with the Iranian forces.
There are social factors which add to the complexity of interdicting the flow of drugs through the Sistan-Baluchestan province, one of the natural gateways for export. Unlike in other areas, the drug barons are socially well networked here. Baluchi and Sistani tribes, with active contacts with each other, are spread across the geographical frontiers of Pakistan and Iran. Averse to recognising geopolitical boundaries as part of an ancestral tradition, prominent sections within these tribes have been engaged in a sustained combat with the Iranian forces. While many are directly involved in trafficking, including providing logistics, others have generally been supportive of this trade.
Fighting in this area has been focussed around the cross-border routes used for trafficking. Iranian law-enforcement agencies have mapped 50 smuggling routes in the Sistan-Baluchestan province. Key locations in the smuggling trail include Mirjaveh, Zahedan and Iranshahr. Zahedan, capital of the province, is the nucleus of two major smuggling routes, with the historical city of Bam as an interim destination. From Zahedan, one route heads for Bam after passing through the Roodmahi ranges and the town of Narmashir. Another breaches the Kabody mountains before reaching Bam via Noosratabad.
Organised gangs, which do the bulk of drug trafficking, use motorised convoys, usually consisting of several vehicles. Smaller quantities are smuggled out by individuals called “Barduks” who undertake cross-border journeys . With their trans-national tribal networks, Barduks usually travel from Iran into Afghanistan and Pakistan with small loads on their shoulders. On return, some may carry heroin or opium, usually not more than five kg.Emergence of Jundallah
Iran’s security involvement in the Sistan-Baluchestan province has acquired another dimension with the emergence of Jundallah — a militant group apparently demanding greater rights for Sunnis and ethnic Balochis. The group, which Tehran accuses of receiving support from the Americans, captured 16 Iranian border guards at a checkpoint in the town of Saravan on June 12. It has since announced that it has killed four of them, and threatened to execute the rest of them unless Iran releases 200 of its fighters.
Iran views the turbulence beyond its borders and its fallout as posing a severe challenge to external security and internal stability. Tehran sees the positioning of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the flare-up of violence in the Sistan-Baluchestan province as an attempt to undermine its security through a sustained attempt to encircle the country with hostile forces. The flood of refugees and drug trafficking pose a serious challenge to its economic and social well-being.
However, given Iran’s focus, tenacity and adoption of a proactive approach, it is inconceivable that it will cave in to external and internal pressures. On the contrary, considering Iran’s capacity to exert its influence through a sophisticated religious, social and intelligence network that reaches far beyond its borders — in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories — the West may be running out of options other than engaging Tehran in a sustained dialogue.