The Shia Factor for the Stabilization of Afghanistan: Iran and the Hazara

Stimson Spotlight

The Shia Factor for the Stabilization of Afghanistan: Iran and the Hazara

By Andrew Houk - As the United States assesses its Afghan strategy and planned beginning of withdrawal of forces in 2011, a close look at the policies of Afghanistan's neighbors is a useful piece of the puzzle.  In the first of a series of spotlights, we explore the complex relations between Iran and the Afghan Shia minority, the Hazara. 

As Afghanistan's only substantial Shia population, the Hazara share a strong connection to Iran that stretches back centuries.  Ethnically, they represent Afghanistan's third largest minority, comprising 10-15 percent of a population of 28 million; they are neither Persian, Pashtun, nor Turkic, but are believed to be Mongol in origin. Their traditional homeland, referred to as the Hazarajat, lies in the Hindu Kush mountains of central Afghanistan. There are also enclaves in West Kabul, as well as in refugee communities in Iran and Pakistan.

For centuries the Hazara were renowned for their fierce independence, preserved by their mountainous homeland. However, following their defeat in 1883 by a British-backed Pashtun king, they were persecuted, enslaved, and forcefully urbanized; many fled to Iran and Pakistan.  In 1929 this subjugation was followed by intense Pashtunization campaigns, further eroding Hazara identity.  Afghanistan's wars since 1979 have realigned the ethnic power balance and been a source of social and political empowerment for Afghan minorities, particularly at the expense of the Pashtuns.

Tan area represents Hazara territory.

As violence continues in Afghanistan, and war weariness besets Western capitals, the new buzz prescribes a regional and political solution.  However, such a solution will demand cooperation with an internationally isolated Iran.

As the epicenter of Shia Islam and its only Shia neighbor, Iran's religious influence among the Hazara is naturally robust. Historically, the Hazara often fought in Iran's armies and visited the shrines of Shia Imams in Iran and Iraq. Today, Iran funds mosques, universities, and charities in Afghanistan. Many prominent Hazara political leaders spent time in Iran for education, political refuge, or military support. The Hazara Ayatollah Asif Mohseni runs a seminary and television studio to broadcast Shia Islam in Kabul.

Cultural interaction between Iran and the Hazara is also strong. Iranian Farsi is very similar to Dari, which is spoken by half of Afghans and is the accepted lingua franca. Through television, radio, and the printed media, Dari enables Iran to pump its culture throughout Afghanistan. For better or for worse, Iran also invests in educational services, including curricula.

Iran has also hosted many Afghan refugees who fled to Iran in three waves since 1979 (peaking at 2.9 million in 1989). Currently, there are one million refugees in Iran, 43 percent of whom are Hazaras. A third of these refugees have spent more than half their life in Iran and face increasing pressure to repatriate.

Wading only waist deep into the regional and ethnic dynamics of Afghanistan, it is easy assume that these religious and linguistic commonalities yield Iran influence. However, a deeper exploration of this relationship suggests that other factors may overshadow Iran's religious and cultural connection with the Hazara.

Hazara are far from a monolithic demographic.  They comprise dozens of tribes in parts of six provinces. Urban Hazaras such as those of Kabul have very different experiences than those from the rural and conservative districts of the Hazarajat.

Politically, the Hazara are divided by nationalism, theology, foreign influence, and competing personalities. The current Hazara political establishment now faces new challenges from the intellectual elite.  In 2009, an independent, western-educated, Hazara presidential candidate captured 80 percent of Hazara votes. Ranking high in national education scores, this class of educated elite (including women) is likely to grow.

As a religious and ethnic minority, the Hazaras will be best served by success of the American mission to leave a functioning constitutional democracy in Afghanistan.  After two centuries of oppression, their electoral votes will yield small, yet influential, political power. Hazara women have also entered the political sphere, most famously, Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan's first woman provincial governor.  Both socially liberal and religiously conservative Hazaras have everything to lose if the constitution in Afghanistan fails.

Like many Muslims, the Hazaras hold diverse religious and political views, ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to liberalism.  This ongoing tension was manifested in 2009, as Hazarai women protestors clashed with Shia religious students over the Shia Personal Status Law, which effectively legislated the frequency of conjugal relations in Shia marriages.

The Hazara are also aware that Iranian patronage is not always in their interest. Throughout the years of conflict, Iran sustained Hazara militias, but also fought against them. Most notable, was Tehran's support for the Tajik government in Kabul in 1993 which attacked rebellious Hazara communities and fought against a revered Hazara icon, affectionately dubbed "Bab (father) Mazari." Mounting evidence of Iranian arms being found in the hands of the Taliban will only further erode trust, as the Taliban continues to attack southern Hazara communities and blockade supply routes into the mountains.

Hazaras living in underdeveloped regions may also resent Iran's heavy investment in the trade infrastructure of Afghanistan's western and northern provinces.

In sum, The Hazara are neither immune to Iran's influence, nor a pawn for the Islamic republic. As the US seeks a regional and political solution in Afghanistan, the Hazara may prove to be a valuable interlocutor with Iran.

Current efforts to negotiate with Taliban-associated Pashtuns would be complicated by giving all Afghanistan's minorities and neighbors a seat at the table, but ultimately yield stronger agreements. Should the south and east of Afghanistan fall under Taliban control, Kabul's survival will depend on the cohesiveness of the Afghan national army and police forces. In both cases, Iran and the Hazara have the potential to be constructive forces or spoilers. 

Photo Credit: Hazara Villagers Meeting, August 2008. By Nasim Fekrat

In Daimerdad district - Hazara villagers are gathering in a mosque to discuss about the damages of Kuchis war over Hazara people.

Map Credit: Shawn Woodley, Stimson Center