From Mashhad to Kabul: Iran’s Road to Regional Dominance

Map Afghanistan from Mashhad to Kabul

By CW4 Charles Davis, U.S. Army.

In 2014 Rand Corporation analysts stated: “The U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan may lead to greater instability and a vacuum in that country. The Islamic Republic of Iran, one the most powerful regional actors in Afghanistan, is poised to exercise substantial influence there after the U.S. drawdown.” [1] The Rand product also suggested Iran would likely leverage its influence to alleviate political and economic pressures associated with the country’s ongoing nuclear program. Seven years later these forecasts seem to be ringing true. Iranian political and military leadership are diligently shoring up old relationships to place the country in a position of strength throughout the region. 

The SOUFAN Center, a non-profit strategic analysis organization, also believes Iran is posturing to reinforce its influence base within the new Taliban government. In its August 26, 2021 INTELBRIEF [2], SOUFAN indicated “Iranian officials began meeting with Taliban insurgent leaders, and Iran hosted a senior Taliban delegation in Tehran in February 2021.” SOUFAN assesses Tehran is hoping to stabilize its borders and  reduce the flow of refugees into Iran, which hosts some 600,000 documented and two million undocumented Afghans. While many of these predominantly Shia refugees are not likely to rush home to a country led by staunch Sunni fundamentalists with a history of Shia abuses, Iran is probably hopeful stability in the western provinces might provide some relief within the camps.  The INTELBRIEF also reflects on Tehran’s past strategy in Afghanistan and suggests Tehran will hedge its engagement with a new Taliban regime with attempts to build leverage against the group, should the Taliban again become hostile to Iran and its Afghan allies.

Three individuals and one highly effective program are likely to provide Iran placement, access, and operational capability within Afghanistan, in the near future. These men are not on the interim government organizational chart, developed by US State Department Officials, and they are not likely to be as publicly known here in the United States. However, they are historic figures in Iranian, Pakistani and Afghan political and military circles. Their names are Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, Ismail Khan, and Esmail Qaani.   The program is Iran’s heavily recruited and highly effective Fatemiyoun network of soldiers.

Gulbeddin Hekmatyar made a public appearance on September 5th 2021, in an Afghan news clip, when he met with Pakistan’s ISI commander General Faiz Hameed. News coverage suggested the meeting focused on Taliban’s approach to a more inclusive government. [3]  As a former Prime Minister for the country, in 1996, Hekmatyar anticipates an opportunity within this newly forming government. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as Hekmatyar lost that position when the Taliban overthrew the Soviet supported government.

Hekmatyar fled Afghanistan and established residence in Mashhad Iran and ultimately in Pakistan. After the 2001 retreat of the Taliban Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force used Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami militia to get Bin Laden back into Afghanistan via his loyalist, Hassan al-Turabi, [4] as well as helping them protect Bin Laden and the rest of Al-Qaeda’s leadership in both Iran and Pakistan. Hekmatyar was also instrumental in aiding IRGC Quds Force efforts in launching the insurgency of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq; an organization that eventually became the Islamic State. [5]

Hekmatyar’s relationship with Iran is much older though. In their book, Night Letters, Sands and Qazizai assert Khomeini and Hekmatyar established a connection in 1979, when the newly established IRGC provided weapons and funding for his Islamic Republic, which grew into Hizb-e Islami. [6] A Guantanamo Bay detainee interview [7] indicates in January of 2000 Hekmatyar, the detainee, Taliban officials, and Iranian representatives all met to discuss US intervention in the region as well as strengthening ties between the Taliban and Iran.

Ultimately, Iran’s long standing relationship with Hekmatyar will provide open lines of communication and situational awareness regarding the strength and presence of Islamic State/al Qaeda in Afghanistan and may eventually provide Tehran a voice within the governmental structure. Hekmatyar, in turn, will likely continue to receive Quds Force support, training, and financing to maintain his militia.

Ismail Khan‘s relationship with Iran has grown from his provincial governance of Herat. Like Hekmatyar, Khan fled to Mashhad Iran after the Taliban seized Herat in 1995. Khan also commands a militia and used these roughly 8,000 fighters to support US and Northern Alliance efforts against the Taliban. But, like Hekmatyar, Khan’s relationship with Iran began in 1979 when he pledged allegiance to Ruhollah Khomeini. [8] Khan, serving as a Captain in the Afghan Army, led a revolt in Herat that year. Using soldiers and civilians he attempted to seize control of the border province from the Soviet backed government. [9]

Khan served in several positions in the US backed Afghan government, first as the Provincial Governor of Herat and then as President Karzai’s Minister of Water and Energy. He was dismissed from both positions due to concerns regarding the depth of his relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khan was also known to withhold customs revenue and tax collections intended for the country’s national coffers. [10] While governor of Herat, Khan received fuel, ammunition, and arms from Tehran. In exchange, he provided access through Shindand District into the heart of Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara communities. A Los Angeles Times report from 2002 suggests between November and December of 2001 Khan received as many as 20 truckloads of money to secure his Iranian loyalty and support. [11]

In early 2012, the IRGC began reactivating its Fatemiyoun network under Khan in response to NATO’s drawdown. [12] Comprised of Afghan Shias, similar organizations have not fought outside Afghanistan since the Iran Iraq war. The program, which is supervised by IRGC Quds Force and maintains a primary recruitment office in Mashhad Iran, saw regular combat in Syria from 2013 through 2017, when Tehran began to draw down the numbers and encourage veterans to return home to Afghanistan. In 2016 Iran boasted Fatemiyoun numbers reached 20,000. [13]

A 2019 report by USIP indicates “The IRGC may have downsized the Fatemiyoun, but a committed core of the most loyal fighters remains, which suggests that Iran envisions a use for the outfit in a protracted, low-intensity fight in Syria or for deployment to other regional conflicts in the Middle East.” [14] In December 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to coordinate with the Afghan government for the use of Fatemiyoun forces. [15] He framed this offer of support as an effort to combine forces to defeat Daesh [ISIS-K] and reaffirmed that Fatemiyoun forces would fight under the guidance/command of the Afghan government.

Coincidentally, Khan again raised his militia in an effort to protect Herat, during the Taliban advance in August of 2021. He was captured on August 13th and held for questioning, only to resurface in Mashhad Iran several days later. Additionally, in the same TOLO news interview with Iran’s Foreign Minister, he was specifically asked about Taliban and Iranian connections in Mashhad. While acknowledging he has heard of the Mashhad Council, he was not familiar with it. [16] Historic and recent reporting continuously provide links back to the city of Mashhad. 

Most recently Khan has spoken out against former president Ashraf Ghani. Using Iranian media platforms, Khan is reestablishing his narrative as a Mujahedeen leader and central figure in Afghanistan’s long fight against occupation. [17] Khan is also playing on his prominence in Shia communities, even though he is a Sunni. He likely hopes this will provide an opportunity for political clout as more governmental positions are announced.

There is a common thread between the Fatemiyoun Brigade, Ismail Khan, and Gulbeddin Hekmatyar; it is the IRGC. This relationship is long standing, with origins to Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamic movement of the late 70s and early 80s. The new face of the IRGC Quds Force is Esmail Qaani, former deputy to his predecessor Qasim Soleimani and expert on Afghanistan. Qaani, who was born in Mashhad Iran, once said of Soeimani “Those who become friends at times of hardship, have deeper and more lasting relations than those who become friends just because they are neighborhood friends.” [18]

This bond of hardship and combat likely extends to both Hekmatyar and Khan through their mutual ties to the United Islamic National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance, against the Taliban in the late 1990s. [19] Furthermore, this affiliation to what Qaani calls the boys of Mashhad extends to the current Supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. A young Khamenei would lead mourning ceremonies for Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of the Shi’a buried in Khorasan, with “the boys from Mashhad,” who served in the Fifth Nasr Division during the war with Iraq. [20]

Qaani’s Quds Force experience in Afghanistan is first reported in Mohammad Mohaddessin’s “Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Global Threat” circa 1993 [21] and this expertise has solidified his point position on all things Afghan. On September 7, 2021, Qaani briefed the Majlis (Iranian parliament) focusing on the Taliban’s intention to form an inclusive government and the importance of avoiding a Sunni/Shia conflict in the country. This message is certainly in line with holding back on use of Hekmatyar and Khan’s militia groups in favor of political maneuvering up front.

Another key indicator of a common and unifying goal in Afghanistan comes from author Sadollah Zarei: “Worthy of note is that in the past two decades, the Taliban have been following the call of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Muslims to strive to form governments that are independent of oppressing foreign powers, and fight against corruption at home.” [22] This thought resonates with another observation by Oved Lobel. In his paper, The Graveyard of Empires: The Causes and Consequences of American Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Oved Lobel states: “In reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as its name implies, has absolutely no relation to Iran.  It is the army of a wholly integrated transnational clerical network that emerged out of the Iraqi Shia religious center of Najaf in the 1950sand 1960s.” Lobel further asserts it is not the leaders of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan who call the shots, but pan-Islamic global crusade whose elements are inextricably intertwined and ultimately control Pakistan and Iran. [23]


Understanding Khomeini’s interpretation of velayat-e faqih (province or governorate) is the key to Iranian foreign policy. This is especially true since the players outlined in this work are all vehement followers of his movement. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini claimed both religious and political authority over jurists (those who make law) and the people. This is in direct contrast to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and current marji (religious reference) in Najaf. Sistani is a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, denouncing the idea of absolute guardianship. So, as the West continues to view current events as a move towards regional dominance, the East likely sees this as the next step in validating Khomeini’s interpretation of the Quran.


[1] Alireza Nader, “Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan Implications for the U.S. Drawdown” Rand Corporation, 2014



[4] Leah Farrall and Mustafa Hamid, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, London: Hurst & Co., 2015

[5] Chris Sands with Fazelminallah Qazizai, Night Letters pp. 410-13.

[6] Sands and Qazizai, p. 343.


[8] Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System p. 187

[9] Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (New York: Basic Books, 2005), pp. 391-2

[10] Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 October 2003. Significant revenue is raised by custom officials who demand as much as $300 for trucks to pass through the city

[11] Los Angeles Times, 6 Jan 2002 and The Guardian, 24 Jan 2002. Khan’s militia forces that not only wear uniforms supplied by Iran but are distinguished by their Palestinian-style black and white checkered keffiyehs

[12] Graham Bowley, “Afghan Warlord’s Call to Arms Rattles Officials,” New York Times, November 12, 2012




[16] Ibid



[19] Ibid

[20] “Mo’avenat-e Farhangi-ye Moassesseh-ye Revayat-e Sireh-ye Shohada: Jay-e Pa-ye Baran” [The Footprint of Rain], Qom: Moavenat-e Farhangi-ye Moassesseh-ye Revayat-e Sireh-ye Shohada, n.d., 10.

[21] Mohammad Mohaddessin, Islamic Fundamentalism—The New Global Threat (Washington DC: Seven Locks Press, 1993, 2001), 200


[23] Oved Lobel “The Graveyard of Empires: The Causes and Consequences of American Withdrawal from Afghanistan” April 21, 2021



Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: BBC Persian, September 28, 2019. Creative Commons license, Wikipedia.

Ismail Khan: Ismail Khan at the 2010 National Conference on Water Resources, Development, and Management of Afghaninistan. By Employee of the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan (U.S. State Department). Cropped by Officer – U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan, Public Domain,

Esmail Ghaani: By, 2020, CC BY 4.0,

Map: Derived from CIA map.

About Charles Davis 6 Articles
CW4 Charles Davis serves on the faculty of the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career College. He currently instructs International Strategic Studies at all levels of Warrant Officer Education. CW4 Davis is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Broadening Program and holds a Master’s Degree with Honors in Intelligence Studies from American Military University.  CW4 Davis is also a recipient of the Military Intelligence Corps Knowlton Award. The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.