KABUL -- Tehran entices impoverished Afghan refugees with promises of money to fight in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian official has admitted, contradicting the regime's narrative that the group is made up of volunteers not mercenaries.
The regime paid Afghans to go to war in Syria, Parviz Fattah, a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who serves as the director of the Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution, an organisation associated with the IRGC, said in a video shared widely on social media.
"I was working with the Sepah Co-operative Foundation when Hajj Qasem Soleimani asked me for help, saying he didn't have money to give to Fatemiyoun [fighters] in Syria that month," Fattah said in the video of him on a television show. The date when it aired is unknown.
"Soleimani couldn't provide wages to his [Fatemiyoun] fighters," he added. "He said, 'I'm embarrassed. I brought them here, [and now I can't pay them].'"
Soleimani was considered to be the most powerful leader in Iran after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Proof of exploitation
The admission by Fattah, who is also a former energy minister, runs counter to denials by Iranian authorities that the regime gives money to Fatemiyoun Division fighters. Instead, Tehran has been adamant in insisting that Afghans participated in the war in Syria as volunteers.
The exchange also also highlights the financial struggles of the Iranian regime, which is faced with an increasingly disaffected population and a tailspinning economy.
Fattah's remarks were downplayed in Iran.
"It seems that the director of the Mostazafan Foundation doesn't have the necessary wisdom to speak on a television show," Iranian newspaper Sharq wrote on April 5, calling Fattah's remarks "very bizarre".
In Afghanistan, analysts such as Akbar Jan Polad, a political affairs analyst in Kabul, see the admission as concrete proof of the Iranian regime's exploitation of impoverished Afghans.
"Previously, the Iranian authorities said on multiple occasions that Afghans went to the Syrian war as volunteers and without any financial incentives to defend the shrines, the Sayidda Zainab Mosque and other sacred places," he said.
"But the remarks of this Iranian official, on the contrary, show that the government of Iran exploits the desperate situation of Afghan refugees by putting their lives at risk and giving them money to join the Syrian war," Polad added.
"The remarks of this Iranian official reveal that Iran has so heavily invested in paramilitary groups such as the Fatemiyoun Division to serve its interests in Syria and other countries that it now faces a funding crunch to pay Fatemiyoun fighters," he said.
The Iranian regime has spent almost $16 billion (1.2 trillion AFN) during the Syrian civil war on strengthening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and expanding Tehran's influence in Syria, Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, said last November.
"Each fighter of the Fatemiyoun Division receives 3.5 million tomans (63,500 AFN or $828) in wages from Iran and $120 [9,082 AFN] from Bashar al-Assad per month," said one former Fatemiyoun Division member who once deployed to Syria.
"They [Iran] give the commanders 4 million to 12 million tomans [each month]. Iran issued bank cards to them, and their wages are sent to their respective bank accounts," said the ex-member under the pseudonym Ahmad.
The Iranian regime grants permanent residence to those Fatemiyoun Division fighters who have gone to war in Syria at least three times, he said.
"Afghans [who fight as part of Fatemiyoun] are not deported, and they become eligible to buy a home, a car, etc., in Iran," Ahmad said.
However, most of the members do not even receive training, he added.
"It [Fatemiyoun] doesn't train anyone after enrollment -- it immediately sends them to war," he said.
Fatemiyoun Division members are now party to the atrocities committed by the Syrian government, said Fazel Menallah Mumtaz, a political analyst in Kabul.
"When the Arab Spring began [in 2011], the Iranian regime sent congratulations, but when the Arab Spring reached Syria, Iran deployed its military and Fatemiyoun Division fighters to Syria to stop the Syrian people and defend the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad," he said.
Al-Assad committed heinous crimes, "killing tens of thousands of Syrians, and Iranians as well as the Fatemiyoun Division are parties to al-Assad's crime", said Mumtaz.
Now, as Syrian government forces gain ground in Syria and have less need for Iranian-backed militias, Tehran may try to use Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan, he said.
"Iran has been fighting and interfering in Afghanistan for years through its proxy groups," said Mumtaz. "It supported terrorist groups through the Arian Bank and money laundering. It [currently] finances dozens of media outlets [in Afghanistan] to promote a cultural war."
"We are afraid that one day it will send Fatemiyoun Division fighters to Afghanistan and launch another civil war," he said.
Buried in mass graves
"Investigations show that more than 20,000 Afghans -- most of whom are underage -- have been killed or injured in the Syrian war," said Mumtaz.
"A number of them were buried in mass graves in Syria, and a bigger number of them in Iran," he added.
Dawood Rawesh, a sociology professor at Kabul University, expressed his concerns about the family members these Fatemiyoun members have left behind.
"A matter of concern that creates dozens of challenges for the society is the families of Fatemiyoun fighters who have been killed," said Rawesh.
"The war in Syria has left thousands of Afghan families without guardians or a [clear] fate," he added. "Iran may provide for their families for a few days, but it won't do it for a longer period."
"After they [families of the killed Fatemiyoun members] return to Afghanistan, they will become a burden on society. Their wives and children will commit various types of crimes, disrupting the civil order," Rawesh predicted, citing the poverty of the bereaved women and children.