ISLAM QALA â€" Itâ€™s almost midday when, under a blazing sun, the first bus transporting Afghans expelled from Iran arrives.
At the border crossing of Islam Qala, in western Afghanistan and 460 miles from the capital Kabul, two metal sentry boxes are built opposite one another. Over one flaps the Iranian flag, on the other the Afghan one. A few dozen yards from there, the portrait of Iranâ€™s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and that of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, are drawn next to each other on a large billboard. The two Shia dignitaries welcome travelers who leave Afghanistan for Iran.
â€‹Ghadir, 14, is the oldest of eight children in his Afghan family. His face is tanned by the sun. His hands are already calloused from the hundreds of hours he spent on construction sites. Four days ago, he was arrested while working in Qamsar, in central Iran, as police officers sought to check his residence permit.
The Iranian officers sent Ghadir back home as soon as they caught him. â€œLook at me! Iâ€™ve still got my working shoes and clothes on,â€ he says, pointing to his mud-covered sneakers and his shalwar kameez â€" the traditional Afghan tunic â€" with holes.
By the busload
Since early 2015, Iranian authorities have arrested some 20,000 Afghans every month, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In Islam Qala, between 30 and 45 buses arrive every day, except on Fridays, the weekly holy day in Iran as well as in Afghanistan.
As an underage worker, Ghadir falls in the so-called â€œvulnerableâ€ category. As such he was taken care of by the IOM as soon as he reached Islam Qala. He will be sent to the IOM transit camp in Herat where he will stay for the night, along with other unaccompanied minors, before departing for his hometown.
Humanitarian aid for these categories of people has been extremely reduced at the Iranian border and in Heratâ€™s transit camp. But it hasn't vanished. Instead it's been displaced â€" to deal with deportees from Pakistan.
Since the school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014, Pakistani authorities have multiplied the deportations of Afghans. â€œIn the first quarter of 2015, deportations from Pakistan were up 250% compared to the previous year,â€ says Matthew Graydon, public information officer at the IOM. â€œThis new situation made us turn our focus away from the Iranian border and weâ€™ve been forced to cut the budget for Islam Qala.â€
IOM workers used to locate the minorsâ€™ families and always had a social worker accompanying the children home. Now, the organization pays just for the transport, not knowing where these young Afghans will end up. Things are even more complicated now that it's summer, when Iran tends to step up its deportation efforts.
Pakistan only deports adult men. But Iranian authorities make no exceptions. Ghadir, for example, is by no means the only minor to have expelled from the country. Iran even deports underage girls, whether theyâ€™re alone or not, or whether their parents have been located or not.
â€œIn 2010, we took in a 10-year-old girl who was deported from Iran on her own,â€ says Maryam Soltani, an assistant in the IOMâ€™s Herat transit camp. â€œShe didnâ€™t know her parentsâ€™ address in Iran, nor that of her family back in Afghanistan. Sheâ€™s been staying at a shelter for women here in Herat ever since.â€
Even though some of those deported say they wonâ€™t go back to Iran, many believe theyâ€™ll try their luck again in the future. â€œUnemployed people in Afghanistan know theyâ€™ll find a job there, despite the mistreatments they must endure,â€ an IOM worker explains.
There are an estimated 3 to 4 million Afghans living in Iran, the vast majority of them undocumented. The few jobs available to them tend to be both difficult, such as garbage collection.
Abidullah, 28, was arrested while he was taking his family from the central Iranian city of Isfahan, where he was working as an undocumented farmer, to Shiraz, more to the south. He doesnâ€™t rule out going back to Iran. The prospect of having to pay a hefty amount of money to a smuggler doesnâ€™t scare him.
â€œFrom here, Iâ€™ll go home to Kunduz,â€ he says. â€œBut if I donâ€™t find a job there, Iâ€™ll certainly go back to Iran.â€
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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