New border tensions and clashes between Afghanistan and Iran have been sparked by their shared use of the Helmand River. On 27 May, there were clashes between Taliban members and Iranian border guards in the area separating Iran and Afghanistan, which resulted in casualties and fatalities on both sides, with each side blaming the other for starting the gunfire.
These clashes occurred concurrently with a recent exchange of threats and statements between the Afghan and Iranian sides, against the backdrop of their historical dispute over the Helmand River’s water shortage, which originates in the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains’ foothills and flows along their shared border in southwest Afghanistan and southeast Iran.
A New-Old Dispute
The Helmand River, running for 1,150 km, is the longest river in Afghanistan. It begins in the Hindu Kush Mountains to the west of Kabul and flows southwest into Lake Hamoun in the Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan Province, nourishing the wetlands on both sides of the border. The Helmand River has always been a source of cooperation and tension between Afghanistan and Iran, with the latter seeking to ensure water flows to its lands out of concern that a lack of water would cause instability in the Sunni- and Baluchi-dominated Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Notably, the Helmand River is a major artery upon which the inhabitants of the river delta on both sides of the Afghan-Iranian border depend for survival. This explains its significance to both countries. The river’s water resources are a significant source of income for these people, as well as an essential resource for drinking water, agriculture, and fishing in that region.
Water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan date back to the 1870s, when Afghanistan was under British control and the Iran-Afghan border was delineated along the main branch of the Helmand River. Iran and Afghanistan signed a treaty in 1939 to share river water, but Afghanistan never ratified it. In 1948, a new effort to resolve the conflict was launched in Washington, and Iran and Afghanistan decided on a tripartite commission to resolve the conflict. The committee recommended in February 1951 that Iran’s share of Helmand water be 22 m3/s. Iran disagreed with the recommendation and demanded a larger share, which led to a protracted negotiation period between the two countries. The prime ministers of the two countries signed an agreement in 1973 that allotted 22 m3/s to Iran in a typical year (when the river flow is at least 5.6 m3 billion) with an additional 4 m3/s as a token of goodwill and fraternal relations between the two countries, and the share decreases proportionally if the river flow decreases. This agreement was conditional on Iran agreeing to open the ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar to Afghanistan without restrictions. However, political events in both countries, such as the 1973 Afghan coup, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1979 Soviet-Afghan War, and the rise of the Taliban movement in 1995, prevented the agreement from being ratified or fully implemented.
Although the 1973 treaty guarantees Iran access to its share of the Helmand River’s waters, it also gives Afghanistan unilateral rights to use or dispose of the remaining water supplies however it sees fit, allowing it to carry out hydropower projects, implement agricultural projects, and construct reservoirs and dams. As a result, various Afghan governments were eager to construct a number of dams on the Helmand River in order to store water and increase the production of hydroelectric power, such as the Kajaki Dam and the Kamal Khan Dam, whose construction started in 1996 but was put on hold due to fighting in the country. It was then picked back up in 2014, under the administration of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and it was officially opened in March 2021. These initiatives have increased tensions between Afghanistan and Iran over the Helmand waters over the past few decades. Iran has attempted to halt the construction of these dams and put pressure on Ashraf Ghani’s administration, accusing Kabul of repeatedly breaking the 1973 agreement, failing to deliver its share of water, and attempting to restrict river water flow by building dams. For its part, Kabul has maintained its denial of the allegations.
According to a number of sources, one way to resolve the water dispute between Afghanistan and Iran in accordance with Article III of the 1973 Helmand River Treaty is for the two nations to establish joint hydrometric stations for gauging purposes. These stations help resolve the question of the amount of water necessary to be delivered to Iran, but the latter has always opposed their construction because doing so would more strictly regulate its share of water, whereas it receives more water during years with normal or above-normal rainfall. At the twenty-first meeting of the Joint Committee of Commissioners of the Helmand River, the two countries agreed to construct hydrometric stations jointly. However, this agreement has remained purely on paper. Similarly, Afghanistan and Iran once more agreed in August 2022 on a schedule for constructing joint hydrometric stations, but this kind of project takes years to complete.
Despite Iran and the Taliban’s ideological and historical animosity, which was demonstrated by the massacre of eight Iranian diplomats after the Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, in 1998, the Helmand River water issue was one of the primary factors that led Iran to forge close ties with the Taliban movement. Some phases of this relationship took an unspoken form, and its characteristics came into the open after the fall of Kabul in August 2021. It could be argued that Tehran was able to use its relationship with the Taliban to gain access to the Helmand River in different ways.
Before the Taliban’s second ascent to power, there were numerous reports of Iranian support for the Taliban’s plans to conduct armed attacks that would obstruct the construction of the Kamal Khan Dam. The Taliban, for instance, attacked the dam guards in the Castle of Fateh of the Afghan province of Nimruz in October 2020, killing six and injuring two. After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Iran attempted to capitalize on the political vacuum left by the US withdrawal, as well as the Taliban’s lack of international legitimacy and the technical know-how required to benefit from the Helmand River’s waters, in order to exert more pressure and secure an additional share of water for itself from the river.
Although Iran’s pragmatic policy toward the Taliban was successful in persuading the Taliban to take more friendly positions on shared waters to meet Tehran’s needs, such as keeping the gates of the Kamal Khan Dam open since March 2022, allowing the water to flow towards Iran, this did not prevent the occurrence of occasional tensions between the two parties and Iran’s concerns regarding the waters of the Helmand River proved to be one of the primary pressure cards used by the Taliban against Tehran in exchange for other pressure tools used by Tehran in its policy towards Afghanistan. It is remarkable that the disagreement and verbal wrangling over the issue of water between the two countries during the previous and current years have become recurrent, occasionally leading to local acts of violence. For instance, in January 2022, residents of the Iranian city of Zabol resorted to violence and attacked the trucks of Afghan merchants, demanding their water allocation rights from the Taliban.
In this context, recent border tensions and clashes between Tehran and the Taliban were precipitated by a series of vehement statements and threats exchanged between officials of the two countries in May. Iran accused the Kabul government of denying Tehran access to the waters of the Helmand River and demanded that observers be sent to Afghanistan to look into the matter. The Taliban, on the other hand, denied these charges and acknowledged that the drought decreased the amount of running water in the river, which decreased Tehran’s share of water. Videos of Taliban members and leaders making fun of the Iranian president’s threat to the group in the event that Tehran’s water share decreased were also widely shared. The verbal conflict between the two parties escalated into recent armed clashes between Iranian border guards and Afghan forces in the Makaki region on the border of the two countries. Recent armed clashes between Iranian border guards and Afghan forces in the Makaki region on the border between the two countries were precipitated by the verbal conflict between the two parties. The verbal conflict between the two parties escalated into recent armed clashes between Iranian border guards and Afghan forces in the Makaki region on the border of the two countries. Several hours later, calm was restored to the border region, and local officials disclosed that the Iranian and Afghan authorities discussed the causes of the clashes and agreed to continue negotiations.
Controlled Escalation and Governance Problems
Recent border conflicts between Iran and the Taliban are not new. Since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, there have been approximately thirteen clashes between the two countries, but each only lasted a few hours before peace returned to the borders. This suggests that despite the casualties caused by these clashes on both sides, border tensions have become a regular occurrence in relations between Tehran and Kabul and do not amount to a war breaking out between them. In other words, despite the escalation in rhetoric, accusations, and border clashes between Iran and Afghan authorities, it is safe to say that the two sides’ escalation is still controlled and guided by a list of issues that both nations share, as well as by a variety of other factors and determinants that determine each party’s policy and the pressure tactics it employs on the other.
Regarding the Iranian side, there are several factors that make Tehran eager to take more practical measures to contain the Taliban, chief among them are factors relating to Iranian national security and ensuring border security, as well as the numerous issues that are related that have persisted between the two countries for years and were inherited by the successive Afghan and Iranian governments, such as illegal migration, drug smuggling, and fears of the contagion of terrorist threats across the Afghan border, particularly after the growing activity of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) branch in Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban to power. There are additional factors, mainly of an economic and cultural nature. Afghanistan is crucial to the Iranian economy because it serves as a major market for Iranian exports, which have been hit hard by Western economic sanctions. Tehran is also concerned about the safety of the Shiites in Afghanistan, who make up 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population and are primarily of the Shiite Hazara ethnic group. The Hazaras have historically been targets of attacks by the Taliban, and after the group took control of the government, they have risen to the top of the list of IS targets in Afghanistan.
However, the Taliban are currently eager to maintain good relations with Iran even if the latter does not recognize them. This is due in large part to the Taliban’s fear of Tehran providing material and logistical support to the Afghan resistance movements opposed to its control of the government in Afghanistan, as it did in the 1990s during the first era of the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban worry that Tehran will use the pressure card of the Afghan immigrants who have been in Iran for many years and threaten to deport them if the Taliban do not grant it its water rights, which could negatively affect the Afghan economy. Add to this the Taliban’s desire to maintain its ties with Tehran, with Iran being one of the few countries with diplomatic ties to the Taliban and maintains an embassy in Kabul. At the start of this year, it also turned over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban after the Taliban designated Mohammad Afzal Haqqani as its representative there. For the Taliban, these diplomatic representational actions are crucial at a time when it is trying to gain even a small amount of confidence in its regional and global environment in order to acquire the international legitimacy that it lacks.
In a nutshell, border clashes between Iran and the Taliban have become routine since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August 2021. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that these conflicts are a prelude to full-scale war between the two countries; there are many factors at play here that have both Tehran and Tehran eager, at least for the time being, to cool down and negotiate the outstanding issues between them, rather than risk a military conflict whose consequences neither side can afford.