An Afghan immigrant walked into one of the holiest shrines in Iran this month, drew a knife and stabbed three clerics multiple times, killing two of them and severely wounding the third.
The stabbings at the Imam Reza Shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad set off a chain of events that has spiraled into ethnic tensions in Iran and Afghanistan, a diplomatic crisis between the two countries and both sending troops to their common border.
Iranian officials said Wednesday that the two countries were in discussions to defuse the situation and that a Taliban delegation may soon travel to Tehran for talks.
But the hostilities showed how easily one spark could inflame tensions between two countries whose relations have been fragile since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan last summer.
The attack at the shrine set off fears of reprisal among millions of Afghans living in Iran, with at least one confirmed vigilante attack on Afghan. Soon unverified and graphic videos — some reportedly years old — of Iranians harassing Afghans started circulating on Afghan social media, setting off an anti-Iranian furor in Afghanistan.
Amid the uproar in Afghanistan, protesters attacked Iran’s consulate in Herat and called for military action against Iran. Iran responded by suspending consular services in Afghanistan for 10 days.
At the same time, tensions have been high at the border as more Afghans fleeing Taliban rule and a crumbling economy have sought refuge in neighboring Iran.
This week, according to a report in Iranian media, Tehran sent troops and tanks near the border with Afghanistan after a skirmish between border guards at the Islam-Qala crossing reportedly broke out when the Taliban attempted to build a road at the frontier. The Taliban also stationed more forces at the border, Afghan media said.
Iran’s interior minister on Wednesday denied that there had been any border clash.
The relationship between Iran and Afghanistan had already been tenuous since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August.
The Taliban, a Sunni Muslim militant group, is wary of Iran, a regional Shiite power that has previously backed the Taliban’s opponents. Iran fears that Afghanistan under Taliban rule could again become a safe haven for terrorists intent on targeting Shiites and Iran.
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Since last year, Iran has carefully cultivated a policy that did not officially recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government but engaged in diplomatic relations, in order not to antagonize it.
“The more tensions rise between Iran and Afghanistan, the worse it gets for refugees in Iran because public opinion turns negative toward them,” said Dawood Qayomi, a former Afghan diplomat who served in Iran.
About five million Afghans now live in Iran, according to Iranian estimates. Most belong to two minority ethnic groups — the Hazara, who are Shiite Muslim, and Tajik Afghans, who have close cultural ties to Iran. Both have crossed the border for decades amid threats of prosecution by the Taliban and to seek better economic opportunities.
The stabbings on April 6 shocked Iranians partly because terrorist attacks are extremely rare in the country and partly because the Imam Reza shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, is considered a safe sanctuary.
The attack occurred during the first week of the holy month of Ramadan. One of the clerics died on the spot, another succumbed to injuries several days later and the third survived with extensive injuries to his hands and body, Iranian media reported. The surviving cleric described a chaotic scene where the attacker stabbed him from behind and chased him when he tried to escape, according to the reports.
Videos of the attack published on Iranian media show the clerics lying, bleeding, in the courtyard, people running to help them, and a crowd of onlookers capturing the assailant, beating him and screaming at him before handing him over to security guards.
Iran’s Tasnim News Agency identified the man as Abdulatif Moradi, a 21-year-old Afghan of Uzbek ethnicity who had entered Iran illegally from Pakistan a year ago. He lived with his brother in Mashhad, where both worked for a transportation company. After his arrest, videos emerged of Mr. Moradi describing Shiite Muslims as infidels.
The Taliban condemned the attack and disavowed it. But within a few days, Afghans in Iran reported at least one unprovoked attack by vigilantes. Afghan workers, many of whom do not have work permits, have also complained that they were being shortchanged on wages and said they feared an increase in deportations.
“The refugees in the middle of these tensions are the ones being hurt,” said Abdul Hamid Ibrahimi, an Afghan student in Iran. “The Taliban are making the situation even worse.”
More than a million Afghans have fled to Iran in recent months, only to find an economy strained by sanctions, inflation and the coronavirus pandemic. Some Iranian officials are saying that Iran cannot handle the influx of more migrants, given the domestic issues it is facing — a sentiment shared by many ordinary Iranians.
“We have said many times that Iran, for many reasons such as the economy, climate and social problems cannot host millions of dear Afghans,” Vahid Bahman, an Iranian historian, wrote on Twitter, posting a video of a crowd of Afghans packing Tehran’s landmark Azadi Square. “Border control is officially up in the air.”
A day after the killings, the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, broke the Ramadan fast with Afghan students in an effort to reduce tensions. But the Taliban, critics say, have done the opposite.
Mawlawi Ziu-ur Rahman Asghar, a member of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, openly threatened Iran. “If Iran continues oppressing” Afghans, he tweeted on April 8, “then we should take military action against it.”
The Taliban’s leadership did not distance itself from the violent rhetoric against Iran, including Mr. Asghar’s comment, critics say.
The Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, in a meeting with Bahadur Aminian, the Iranian envoy in Afghanistan, on April 10, called on Iran to “prevent abuse” of Afghan migrants. Mr. Aminian said Iran had no intention of mistreating Afghans, according to Mr. Muttaqi’s spokesman.
A day later, protesters attacked Iran’s consulate in Herat, setting its gate on fire and pelting it with rocks amid chants of “death to Iran.” Later that week, the Taliban further inflamed tensions, critics say, by arresting a pro-Iranian Shiite cleric, who had offered flowers at the Iranian embassy in Kabul after a protest.
By then Iran had suspended services at its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan, demanding the Taliban safeguard its diplomatic outposts, and had summoned Afghanistan’s top diplomat in Tehran. Iran has also called on the Taliban to protect Shiites in Afghanistan.
But in the past week alone, two attacks have targeted Hazara Shiites in Afghanistan. One, which was claimed by an affiliate of the Islamic State, killed at least 10 people at a mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. Victims of the other attack, which included three blasts outside two different educational institutes and for which nobody has yet claimed responsibility, included children.
There have been rifts over the years between Iranians and the Afghan immigrants but tensions have recently escalated to a new level. After the Mashhad stabbings, vigilantes attacked a group of Afghans who were sipping tea and smoking hookahs in the town of Karaj. Wielding knives, axes and bats, they beat and humiliated the Afghans, according to an Afghan who lives in Karaj but asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. He said a friend was among the victims, who included an Afghan who was stabbed in the leg.
While there are many Iranians who welcome, assist and employ Afghans, the undocumented majority face many challenges and hurdles for assimilation. Their plight is similar to that of undocumented people elsewhere — it is hard to find jobs, children face obstacles in enrolling schools and many are subject to ethnic profiling, treated as suspects when crimes occur in their neighborhoods.
But for many Afghans seeking refuge in Iran there is no clear path forward. Turkey is building a wall along its border with Iran largely to block Afghans from crossing over and making their way to Europe. Returning to Afghanistan would mean facing the Taliban again.
Mohammad Behzad, an Afghan in Tehran, said the streets have become increasingly unsafe for migrants, and that the only time he leaves home is when he goes to work in a clothing factory.
“Everyone is worried, and everyone wants to leave,” he said. “They prefer to live in any country except Afghanistan and Iran.”