A handout picture made available by the Iranian Red Crescent on August 19, 2021, shows Afghan refugees gathered at the Iran-Afghanistan border between Afghanistan and the southeastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan province, as they try to enter the Islamic republic following the takeover of their country by the Taliban. Photo: Iranian Red Crescent via AFP / Mohammad Javadzadeh /

As Iran and the Taliban take cautious first steps towards formalizing relations, a new worrying wave of anti-Afghan sentiment is sweeping across Iran amid new heated calls for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees.

On April 5, an assailant stabbed two Iranian Shia clerics to death on the premises of the revered shrine of the 8th Shia Imam Reza in the pilgrimage city of Mashhad. The attacker, apparently motivated by anti-Shiite motives, was later identified as an Uzbek national who had crossed illegally into Iran last year.

However, after the footage of the assault captured by pilgrims went viral on social media, many Iranians mistook the aggressor for an Afghan citizen, sparking a deluge of racist hatred about Afghans.

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Bighash, a MP from the Shazand district, referred to the incident on Twitter as a “brazen attack by an Afghan resident against three clerics” and said “all of these people” should be ejected from the country before it’s too late. He claimed that the province of Tehran, home to the national capital, is now “encircled by 1.6 million Afghans.”

There are discrepant figures on the number of Afghan refugees in Iran, an information gap that can be partly attributed to the government’s census flaws and the fact that many of the Afghans don’t possess proper identification documents. The official tally communicated by the government to the United Nations Refugee Agency put the figure at 780,000 as of October 2020.

However, an additional 2 million undocumented Afghans as well as around 600,000 passport holders are also believed to be residing in Iran, which is the top destination for fleeing Afghans due to extensive cultural, lingual and religious commonalities.

Nominally, Afghan migrants are entitled to free education, healthcare and social services, but the dark reality is that many face entrenched harassment, bullying, exclusion and exploitation.

Due in part to the nation’s international isolation, many Iranians have a myopic outlook on foreigners. Due to the small number of international students, foreign workers and visitors, Afghan migrants are the most immediate “aliens” many locals encounter.

Little scholarly work has been done to measure the racially-prejudiced attitudes of Iranians. But the treatment of Afghans is a significant barometer of Iran’s tolerance of foreign outsiders.

According to government regulations, Afghan nationals are prohibited from living in or traveling to 15 out of Iran’s 31 provinces, and their movement in 12 other provinces is subject to restrictions.

An Afghan refugee man ties cloth on a religious symbol during a Muharram mourning ceremony praying for peace in Afghanistan at a hussainiyah in Varamin county, Tehran Province, Iran, August 20, 2021. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Morteza Nikoubazl

Iran-Afghanistan relations are still vexed by a near war in 1998, after the Taliban assassinated 11 Iranians, including eight diplomats and a senior journalist, in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Islamic Republic had made it clear that its recognition of a Taliban government depended on the militant group’s creation of an inclusive government and commitments to protect Hazara Shias, which represent a populous minority in Afghanistan and have faced periodic persecution for decades.

Local media have reported that three diplomats dispatched by the Taliban have been admitted by Iran and are now stationed in the embassy of Afghanistan in Tehran. Iran is the fifth country after Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Russia and Qatar to welcome the Taliban diplomats, even as Iran’s foreign ministry officials continue to prevaricate on their decision to recognize the Islamic Emirate.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center and an expert on Afghanistan, told Asia Times the road ahead for Iran-Taliban relations is not as smooth as it appears.

“I don’t expect Tehran to recognize the Taliban anytime soon, no matter how keen it is to poke Washington in the eye. Like all the regional actors, Iran will take a wait and watch approach to see if the Taliban is able to consolidate power and target terror groups that threaten Iran, especially ISIS-K,” Kugelman said. “Iran also won’t recognize the Taliban unless the regime brings in more Shias to hold high positions.”

Kugelman believes the Taliban, beyond maintaining working relations with a neighbor, does not view establishing relations with Iran as a top priority; rather, they are more interested in Chinese capital and Pakistan’s diplomatic support: “Iran’s relationship with the Taliban will likely be limited. There will be diplomatic engagement and discussions on trade. But until Iran is satisfied on the inclusivity and counterterrorism fronts – and I wouldn’t count in that – it won’t recognize the Taliban.”

As the Taliban vies for international legitimacy, which will hinge largely on its leaders’ adoption of a moderate stance on human rights and inclusivity, some scholars suggest Kabul’s new rulers may find common cause with Iran in combatting a common, reviled enemy: ISIS-K.

“In the last 43 years, the Islamic Republic has shown its pragmatic side despite its dogmatic rhetoric. Tehran’s government was pragmatic enough to cooperate with the United States, the Great Satan, while they were strategic allies fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq,” said Houman Sadri, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

“Thus, it is possible and feasible, that Iran could bury the hatchet with the Taliban in their common struggle against the Islamic State and other common foes,” he added.

Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. Image: Facebook

But even with an anti-ISIS partnership built on shared strategic interests, Iran’s lingering struggle with meeting the needs of millions of documented and undocumented Afghans will remain a sticking point unless Tehran’s relations with the Western world are normalized and it is able to draw in Western donor assistance to allocate to its huge refugee community.

“As the Iranian economy has increasingly suffered under the weight of US-led sanctions, the Iranian government has faced a diminishing resource capability to cater for most of the Afghan refugees, especially in the face of the growing rate of unemployment among the Iranians and the availability of cheap labor by the Afghan refugees… This has contributed to Tehran tightening its belt and many Iranians viewing the refugees as a costly burden,” said Amin Saikal, an adjunct professor of social sciences at the University of Western Australia.

“Unlike Afghanistan’s other neighbor – Pakistan – Iran has not been a recipient of international humanitarian assistance to the extent necessary to look after the Afghan refugees. Tehran deserves to receive aid in this respect, but of course the regime of sanctions has imposed its limitations in this respect,” Saikal, the author of “Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic,” told Asia Times.

Amalendu Misra, professor of international politics at Lancaster University in Britain, holds a similar view: “The regime in Tehran feels ignored for all its sacrifices made to address the Afghan refugee needs. It feels rather than being rewarded for its efforts, it is being punished with sanctions. The current anti-Afghan refugee sentiment may be a part of that political reality.”

Other experts argue regardless of the economic fragility caused by sanctions and the international community’s scant cooperation to offset the costs of hosting the refugees, there is no excuse for Iran’s overt discrimination against Afghans.

“The international community has a responsibility to share the burden of the cost of Iran’s hosting Afghan refugees; however, prior to that, Iran has the responsibility to safeguard the human rights of the Afghans, to treat them humanely, and to not recruit them for its proxy wars in Syria and elsewhere,” said Amin Tarzi, a director of the Middle East studies at the Marine Corps University in Virginia.

“The Islamic Republic cannot play its own game and expect to be compensated according to the international rules and regulations,” he added.

Civil society activists in Iran are now urging the government and private sector to refrain from engaging in business with the Taliban unless the regime takes steps to improve its human rights record. But some analysts believe the calls will fall on deaf ears and financial interests will ultimately trump principles.

“Iran’s businessmen, like all businessmen in the world, will do business with anyone from whom they can make a profit. Human rights is not a part of their consideration except that stupid things like not permitting women to work can actually interfere with business,” said Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

Follow Kourosh Ziabari on Twitter at @KZiabari