Iran has accused Afghanistan of not complying with the water accord, an allegation that Kabul rejects
fter the withdrawal of United States-led coalition forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are facing numerous challenges. The worsening economic situation internally, the cold attitude of the international community on the external front, and conflicts with neighbours on the borders have exacerbated their problems.
The recent conflict on the Afghan-Iran border has gone largely unnoticed due to curbs on media freedom in Afghanistan. The conflict began with a statement from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. During a visit to the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan on May 18, President Raisi warned the de facto Taliban regime in Afghanistan that its non-compliance with agreements on water rights in region along their shared border is escalating tensions between Tehran and Kabul.
The warning followed a phone conversation between Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting foreign minister of the Taliban administration, and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian over several issues, including the transfer of water from the Helmand River. Amir-Abdollahian requested that the Taliban open the gates of the Kajaki Dam “so that both the people of Afghanistan and Iran can be hydrated.”
However, Taliban officials recently claimed that even if they opened the dam, nothing would reach Iran due to low water levels. Amir-Abdollahian said that this could only be determined by a joint technical team, as per a 1973 treaty over water rights. Iran has proposed such a team inspect the Kajaki Dam to assess the situation.
Raisi said that if experts confirm the water shortage, Iran would drop its concerns, though he added that Iran would not allow its people’s rights to be “compromised”. According to the 1973 agreement, Afghanistan is obligated to provide Iran with 850 million cubic metres of water annually from Helmand River. Iran has accused Afghanistan of not complying with the accord, an allegation that Kabul rejects. Disputes over the distribution of cross-border water supplies have plagued relations between the two neighbours for decades.
In response, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement. The Islamic Emirate’s spokesman said that President Raisi’s remarks regarding the Helmand water treaty could affect political relations between Kabul and Tehran. “The Iranian officials should first gather facts about the Helmand water and then raise their demands in appropriate words. If facts are not considered, and such statements are made, the political status between the people of the two Muslim countries could be harmed,” Mujahid said.
There is a reduction in the flow of Helmand River water from Afghanistan to Iran. In 1973, a water agreement was signed between the two countries in this regard. Iran has alleged that water is being withheld. However, the Afghan Taliban says that the flow has decreased due to drought.
The actual situation remains unclear. However, statements from both sides show that there is a reduction in the flow of Helmand River water from Afghanistan to Iran. In 1973, a water agreement was signed between the two countries in this regard. Iran has alleged that water is being withheld. However, the Afghan Taliban says that water has decreased naturally due to drought. It is in this context that gunfire was exchanged between the border security personnel of the two countries on May 27 at the Pul-i-Abresham border point adjacent to the Afghan province of Nimroz. Two Iranian officers and an Afghan Taliban officer were killed as a result of the firing. There are reports of several people sustaining injuries in this incident, but the number has not been confirmed.
The tension on the Afghanistan-Iran border is not a new thing. Since the Afghan Taliban came to power after the withdrawal of US coalition forces, there have been five border clashes between the two countries in 21 months. After the arrival of the Taliban, on December 21, 2021, there was a conflict for the first time on the Shaghalak border adjacent to the Afghan province of Nimroz. On April 21, 2022, when the Afghan Taliban were constructing a road near the Iranian border, there was a clash at the Islam Qila at Dogharoun border. On July 23, 2022, there was an exchange of fire on the Iran-Afghan border adjacent to Dost Muhammad township. For the fourth time in February of the same year, an Iranian border guard was taken into custody by the Afghan Taliban following a conflict. Later, it was reported that there was some misunderstanding and the Iranian border guard was handed back to Iranian officials at the border.
The latest clash may have been caused by the water distribution dispute. Meanwhile, a video posted by a Taliban commander has gone viral. In it he threatens to occupy Iran by force. Senior Taliban commander Abdulhamid Khorasani alias Nasser Badri has in a video message warned that the group will fight against Iranians “with more passion” than they did against US forces. “We will conquer Iran soon if Taliban leaders give us the green light for jihad,” he concluded. Late Wednesday, several videos circulated on social media websites showed Afghan Taliban riding dozens of vehicles to the Iranian border at Islam Qila.
Iran and Afghanistan had extremely strained relations during the first Taliban administration. However, this time the two governments have been trying to prevent border tension from spreading.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer