Angry young Afghans poured into the streets of Kabul today, tore down billboards and posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini across the city, and condemned Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan. The protests began after some Afghan Shi’a leaders held a gathering in western Kabul to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the Iranian revolutionary leader’s death and erected Khomeini billboards across the city.
The posters offended many Afghans. “This is Kabul; not Tehran, not Qom,” read one of the placards carried by university student protestors. “Puppets: no more betrayal,” read another. The students argued that Khomeini was an Iranian figure and there was no reason to celebrate him in Afghanistan. “As you see, posters of Ayatollah Khomeini are hanging in the intersections,” one student said. “This is a direct attack against Afghan culture and own national heroes.”
But Shi’a leaders, who have had close ties with Iran since the jihad period against the Soviets in the 1980s, defended their decision to commemorate Khomeini’s death. “Religious beliefs have no borders. Those who say today that Ayatollah Khomeini belongs to Iran will say the next day that Muslim Prophet Muhammad also relates only to Saudi Arabia,” said Muhammad Akbari, a Shi’a jihadi leader now a member of parliament. “Ayatollah Khomeini is both a religious guide and a political leader. As a Shi’a, religion and politics are not separate for me,” said Isa Hussein Mazari, another Afghan Shi’a leader who heads the Afghan Voice radio.
Most of the billboards were placed in western Kabul, where a majority of the residents are Shi’as and most of the social, educational, religious, and media organizations are funded by Iran.
Many Afghan Shi’as also condemned the ceremony. “The so-called concept of Vilayat-e Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist] is similar to the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban. In reality, it is a despotic dictatorship… It is certain that we Hazaras, who have spent our life struggling for democracy and equality, will always stand against it and will not let anyone to enforce that in our country,” wrote one Afghan Shi’a on Facebook.
Angry protests forced the Iranian ambassador to Kabul, Abolfazl Zohrevand, to cancel his plan to attend the ceremony.
This comes only days after a tense diplomatic crisis between Kabul and Tehran, in which Iran’s ambassador to Kabul threatened the head of the Afghan senate that his country would expel all Afghan refugees if the parliament approved the strategic partnership agreement with the United States. The parliament, however, approved the pact last weekend.
As the United States is winding down the war in Afghanistan, Iran has waged an aggressive soft power and hard power campaign to speed up the U.S. withdrawal and maximize influence in the future of Afghanistan. At present, Washington has no coherent strategy to counter Iranian activities in Afghanistan.
Read AEI’s new report: Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan.