Afghan Shias Return from Iran

During decades of fighting in Afghanistan, minority Shiite Muslims were among those who fled to neighboring Iran, where their branch of Islam is the majority. But now, some are resettling in Afghanistan not far from the border with Iran, fueling long-held suspicions of Tehran's motives.

Most Afghans don't trust their larger, western neighbor. They share American and Arab fears that Iran is seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Every Iranian gesture toward Afghanistan, whether it's paving roads or building mosques, is suspect.

Near Herat, about a two-hour drive from the border with Iran, Mohammed Nayedi points out buildings and roads in the new town of Rawzi, where he, his wife and children along with 200 other families have settled since returning from Iran three years ago.

Nayedi is a member of Afghanistan's Hazara minority. The Hazaras, like most Iranians, are Shiite Muslims. Most Afghans are Sunni.

Rawzi is a rare model of city planning in Afghanistan. Nayedi, who is head of the homeowners association in the town, pointed to hundreds of plots marked by red stakes and piles of rock, all ready for the next wave of families. The town's roads — marked by blue stakes — are carved out of the arid countryside, waiting to be paved.

Nayedi said Iranian pipes bought by the town's founders carry well water into residents' homes, but the town is still searching for donors to build a mosque, school and clinic.

Nevertheless, Rawzi is exactly the kind of place that Nayedi and many other returning Afghans have sought.

"They say each flower is sweet in its own region," Nayedi said. "For a time, Iran was good from a security and economic standpoint. But we yearned to come back. There were no opportunities in my home province, so we came here."

That is exactly why Nahiq Fala said these newcomers don't belong in Herat. Fala, a former immigration official, is an ethnic Pashtun, part of Afghanistan's Sunni majority. He is convinced the recent influx of thousands of Hazaras with no ties to his province is part of an Iranian plot.

He and many other native Heratis believe the Hazaras are getting the money to buy homes from their religious and tribal leaders, who in turn get the money from Iran.

Even if that isn't the case — and the Hazaras and Iranian officials here insist it isn't — Fala worries that the proliferation of towns such as Rawzi could turn Herat into part of the so-called "Shiite Crescent," an area that extends from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf where Iran's Shiite ayatollahs hold sway.

"This program of the Iranians to build up Shiite influence throughout the world was their goal in the past and still is," Fala said.

Tension between Shiites and Sunnis in Herat is already on the rise, Fala said. During a Shiite holy day early last year, clashes between members of the two sects erupted in Herat city, leaving five dead and scores more wounded.

Fala said such fights never happened before the Hazaras arrived.

In Kabul, Wadir Safi, a political science professor, adds that there is historical precedence for Iranian interest in Afghan minority groups, especially Shia.

"They have future plans ... for Herat because it is the nearest province and they have always had an eye here and we still feel a danger from this point of view," he said.

However, the Iranian consul in Herat, Mohammed Ali Najafi Manesh, dismisses such claims as "psychological warfare."

He said his country's interest in Afghanistan is one of a concerned neighbor. Besides religious ties — and he insists those ties are to all Afghans, not just Hazaras — Manesh points to the common language and culture between the two nations.

"The politics of where the Hazaras live is not up to us," he said. "We don't say go to that place and reside there."

It is natural that Afghan Hazaras who have become accustomed to employment, electricity and paved roads in Iran would move to Herat, he said. Outside of Kabul, Herat is Afghanistan's most developed province.

Rawzi resident Mohammed Nayedi insists his loyalties lie with Afghanistan.

But his new home's proximity to Iran is no accident. He said he want to live in a community near a country that was his home for 17 years.

Inside Rawzi's Shiite seminary, which for now also serves as a mosque, Nayedi points to a poster of the top Hazara religious leader, who trained in Iran's holy city of Qom. Nayedi said he and other Hazaras would love it if Iran built them a mosque.

He said they revere Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic. But he said he is unhappy with Iran at the moment because it recently deported tens of thousands of Afghan refugees.

Nayedi said that on the bright side, some of those returning Afghans might end up moving to his new town.

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