TEHRAN (Iran) -- Zahra Husseini was offered a deal by Taliban members: Marry one among us and you'll stay safe.
Husseini, 31 years old, decided to flee. She and her two children walked through vast flatlands without law until they reached Iran.
After the United States pulled troops out of Afghanistan and the Taliban took power, Afghanistan's 960-kilometer (572 mile) border with Iran was a lifeline. Afghans piled into pickups to find work and money.
The desert crossing, once a dangerous part of the world, has been a source of tension for many years. An estimated 5,000 Afghans cross it every day, and neighbors, who were once enemies but now trade fuel, share water, and have a troubled past, navigate a more charged relationship.
Over the past few weeks, there have been skirmishes between Iranian border guards and Taliban. Three Afghan cities joined hands against Iran. Demonstrators set fire to the Iranian Consulate and hurled stones at it. An Afghan migrant allegedly committed a fatal stabbing spree at Iran's holiest shrine, sending shockwaves through the country.
Analysts say that even though both countries do not wish to escalate, the long-simmering hostilities could spiral out of control.
Andrew Watkins (a senior Afghanistan expert at The United States Institute of Peace) said that "You have one of world's most grave refugee crises just chugging on a daily pace. Historical enmity is all you can do." "Earthquakes are inevitable."
Afghans who slip across the border as Husseini are in grave danger. According to the U.N. migration agency Iran has increased its deportations Afghan migrants since the Taliban takeover. This is in response to its sanctions-hit economy not being able to handle the influx.
Ashley Carl, deputy chief for the Afghanistan mission, stated that Iran's deportations increased by 60% in the first three months this year. He said that many of the 251,000 Iranians who returned this year from Iran are still recovering from the trauma of their long journey, having survived car accidents, gunshots, and other hardships.
Roshangol Hakimi (35-year-old) fled Iran to escape the Taliban takeover. She said that smugglers kept her and her daughter, 9 years, hostage for a week before paying ransom.
She said, "They would feed me with polluted water" and "hard, stale bread." "We were dying."
Lucky ones find refuge in Tehran's jumble, squeezed into narrow alleyways and dank spaces. Iran estimates that at least one million Afghans have sought refuge here in the past eight months.
Husseini, like many others, lives in legal limbo and is vulnerable to harassment or exploitation. Husseini's boss at the tailor shop refuses her salary. Her landlord threatens to throw her out. She cannot even come up with enough money to feed her children.
She said, "We have nothing and no where to go," from a small room in southern Tehran furnished only with a gas heater, chairs, and a few velour blankets.
It becomes more difficult to help Afghans as they arrive. Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said last month that "waves" of Afghans displaced from Afghanistan cannot be continued to Iran because Iran's "capacities and capabilities are limited." Iran's youth unemployment is currently at over 23%. Since 2018, Iran's currency, rial, has lost more than half of its value.
Rea Ghobeishavi, a Tehran-based political analyst, said that Iran is not ready to handle the new refugee situation. This is in reference to the growing friction between Afghans (and Iranians).
Iran is becoming more worried after a series of attacks on Afghanistan's minor Hazara Shiites has made it clear that extremist threats continue to proliferate despite promises by Taliban to provide security.
"There are reports about some extremists entering Iran easily with refugees," stated Abbas Husseini (a prominent Afghan journalist in Tehran), describing the growing paranoia in Iran.
Three clerics were killed and two others were injured when an attacker stabbed them to death at Iran's most holy Shiite shrine, Mashhad, in northeast Iran. This was a rare attack on the compound. Media reports identified the attacker as an Afghan national of Uzbek heritage.
Over the next few days, Iranian social media was inundated with videos protesting against Afghan refugees. The grainy clips, which show Iranians beating and insulting Afghans, were difficult to verify. However, they dominated the headlines in Iran, inciting public fury.
Demonstrators attacked and pelted the Iranian Consulate in Herat, west. They also protested at the Embassy of Iran in Kabul. Protesters in Kabul demanded that the Afghan capital stop killing Afghans. Crowds chanted "Death To Iran" in Herat and the southeastern Khost region. For ten days, Iran suspended all diplomatic missions to Afghanistan.
The gate of Iran's consulate was still open, but Iran's special representative for Afghanistan reacted. Hassan Kazemi Qomi attributed the rising tensions to a vague enemy seeking to undermine relations between the two countries. Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghan Foreign Minister, raised concerns with the Iranian ambassador.
Muttaqi said that the ill-treatment in Iran of Afghan refugees adversely affected relations between Iran and Afghanistan... allowing antagonists for to conspire.
His cautious tone betrays a turbulent past.
After 10 Iranian diplomats were murdered in the storming of their consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, Iran almost went to war with the Taliban. However, Tehran's Shiite leaders became more cautious about the U.S. military presence and adopted a more pragmatic approach to the Sunni militant group after the invasion.
Analysts say that both countries have become dependent on one another after being cut off from the global financial system and having to go without cash. Both sides do not want tensions to escalate.
Sanam Vakil (deputy director, Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Program), stated that Iran can exchange currency, barter, and bypass sanctions through its neighbors.
The neighbors almost came to blows when Taliban guards attempted to build a new border road. The Iranian guards were on alert. The crucial crossing was closed.
The countries are aware of the risks and are actively pursuing diplomacy. Khatibzadeh last week promised Tehran that it would accredit Taliban diplomats to assist in the processing of the countless consular cases. Taliban officials visited Tehran to discuss Iran's treatment Afghan refugees.
Many refugees fleeing Afghanistan's oppression and destitution dream of a better life: to be construction workers, factory workers, or farmhands in Iran.
Others, such as Hakimi's 9 year-old daughter Yasmin who hopes to go to Europe, are more optimistic. She dreams of Germany. She said that her father, a Logar police officer who was killed by the Taliban, instilled in them the importance of education.
Yasmin, a Tehran resident in a dilapidated apartment, said that she didn't want a "bad future". "We want to be literate, like my father."
DeBre reported out of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.