Three days before Kabul fell to the Taliban, on August 12, 2021, the Iranian Consulate in Herat province suspended the issuance of tourist visas for Afghan citizens. New visas were restricted to medical staff and those visiting Iran on business.
On paper, anyway. In fact, while flights between the two countries remain suspended, consular staff at the Islamic Republic have continued to sell black-market visas to desperate Afghans trying to leave the country by any means possible. With the Taliban now consolidating its grip on power in the border areas, off-the-books business is booming.
Iran paused most consular services in Afghanistan in March 2021, officially due to the renewed spread of coronavirus. Only truck drivers, businesspeople and health workers were granted assistance. Two months later, a spokesman for the then-governor of Herat, Jilani Farhad, told IranWire that the Islamic Republic had also closed the Islam Qala border crossing, although visas were still being issued to HGV drivers.
The border briefly reopened to investors, students and residents of Iran in June 2021, and visas were issued as normal until the Taliban swept back through Afghanistan in August. But since then, instead of being cancelled outright, the issuance of visas has simply gone underground. This in turn is enabling human trafficking and putting would-be migrants at heightened risk.
Brokers are currently selling Iranian visas to Afghan citizens for around US$1000, give or take a few hundred dollars: an unthinkable sum for most Afghans. Interestingly, for those who are able to meet the cost of travel, the brokers also seem to be able to obtain the visas very quickly.
IranWire spoke to an Afghan citizen who formerly worked as a money changer, who managed to obtain five visas and flee Herat before the Taliban takeover of this province July 28. “I understood Herat was falling to the Taliban,” he said. “I found a go-between and paid about $1,000 for each visa. Fortunately, he got them for us in two days, and we all went to Iran."
Under the guise of a would-be buyer, IranWire contacted one of the brokers: a man who asked to be known as Morteza. He told us the visas were procured directly from the Iranian consulate in Herat, and because of his “relationship” with the staff there, he was able to purchase them promptly. He asked for $1,100 for a one-month visa that would take three days to be issued, or $800 for one that would take two weeks to process. The visas can be extended for another two months once the holder is in Iran.
He was upfront about the fact that because of the current high demand, most of the money is being pocketed by consular officials. “The cost of obtaining a visa has risen. For me, each visa costs less than $50, but I have to pay the rest to the consular staff. You can’t get a visa below this price.” That said, he added, from there it was an easy journey: “Even those who don’t have a passport can get to Iran through the Islam Qala checkpoint for 25 million tomans (US$925). Some of this is also paid to the Iranians at the border."
“The Islamic Republic is Responsible”
A crowd has formed in front of the Iranian Consulate at Herat’s Amerit Junction. Many people have come to apply for visas; many more are brokers. Ali Mohammadi, a photographer there trying to apply on others’ behalf, tells IranWire all of this is happening in plain sight: “Each of the brokers receives Iranian visas from the consulate for $600 to $800, and senior officials have no objection to this. The Islamic Republic is responsible for this situation.”
Others are applying for Iranian visas on the pretext of being students, but intending to work as laborers when they arrive in the country. One of them, Farshad Mahmoudi, told IranWire: “My student visa is scheduled to arrive in less than two months. I don’t intend to study; I want to work and send money back to my family. Poverty is rampant in Afghanistan right now, and there are many planning to get to Iran in the same way as me."
Bona fide students are also among those waiting in line, supported by Afghans who have already managed to cross the border. Farhad Heydari, an Afghan student in Iran, told IranWire he works to secure visas for his fellow students that cost just $34 each from the consulate – but “of course, each semester of a bachelor's or master's degree then costs up to 1,000 euros [$1,155]." Some of Heydari’s fellow students told IranWire that he charges about two million tomans, or $71, to prepare the visa documents.
We spoke to Molavi Shirahmad Ammar, the Taliban's new deputy governor in Herat, about this apparently open trade in visas on the steps of the Iranian Consulate. He said he would “pursue the matter” with officials of the Islamic Republic.
This article was written by a citizen journalist under a pseudonym.