BACKGROUND: On May 27, fighting erupted between Iranian and Afghan border guards. Two Iranian soldiers and a Taliban fighter were killed and dozens were injured in the exchange of fire. Both sides blamed the other for having started the fighting. The violent clashes erupted amid rising tensions between Iran and Afghanistan over the sharing of the waters of the Helmand River. The 1,300-kilometer-long river originates in the Hindu Kush to the west of Kabul. It then flows in a southwestern direction and forms the Afghan-Iranian border for 55 kilometers before emptying into the Hamoun wetlands in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province.
The Iran-Afghanistan dispute over the Helmand River is over a century old. In 1973, the two countries signed a water-sharing accord under which Afghanistan is required to release 850 million cubic meters of water annually from the Helmand River to Iran. However, with both countries plunging into political turmoil a few years later, the agreement was neither ratified nor implemented. Iran has on several occasions accused Afghanistan of failing to adhere to the terms of the treaty. It has opposed Afghanistan’s building of dams on the Helmand and the redirection of its waters for agricultural purposes.
The dispute over Iran not receiving its share of the Helmand’s water promised under the 1973 accord – recently, Tehran’s envoy to Afghanistan Hassan Kazemi Qomi claimed that Iran receives just 4 percent of its share of the water – erupted on May 18, when Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited the Sistan-Baluchistan province. In a public speech there, he warned the “rulers of Afghanistan” to “take the issue of ... Iran’s water rights seriously” and to “immediately” provide Iran with its share of water. “Take these words very seriously,” Raisi said.
The Iranian leader’s threatening language was not received well in Afghanistan and Taliban officials denounced Raisi’s “inappropriate words.” Two days later, in a provocative move, the Taliban regime announced the resumption of work on the first phase of the Bakhshabad Dam on the Farah River, which feeds the Sistan Basin from the north. Amid an escalating war of words and provocative moves, the simmering conflict over water sharing exploded in violent clashes on May 27.
IMPLICATIONS: The skirmishes at the border on May 27 ended within a few hours. Although ties between Iran and the Taliban were hostile since the mid-1990s, especially after the killing of 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, relations have improved in recent years. Iran was among the handful of countries that kept its embassy in Kabul open when the Taliban marched into Kabul in August 2021, and although it has not recognized the Taliban regime, Iran did allow it to take control of the Afghan embassy in Tehran. Overall, Iran’s relations with the Taliban regime have been cordial. This bodes well for the prospect of the two sides settling their dispute amicably. Yet the recent tensions over water-sharing are concerning for several reasons.
The Helmand River is vital to both countries. The Helmand Basin covers 40 percent of Afghanistan’s surface area and is regarded as a veritable lifeline as it supports the livelihoods of millions of Afghans in the agricultural sector. The Afghan economy is already suffering a severe crisis and drought has hit agriculture hard. The Helmand’s waters are therefore precious to Afghans.
Across the border, the Helmand River is important for eastern Iran, especially the Sistan-Baluchistan province. It waters the province’s wetlands and supports its rich biodiversity. It provides livelihoods for thousands of fishermen. The importance of Helmand’s waters to Sistan-Baluchistan was underscored dramatically over two decades ago. Between 1998 and 2001, even as drought ravaged the region, the Taliban regime shut down the Kajaki Dam on the Helmand, cutting off the river’s flow to Iran. The impact on Sistan-Baluchistan was devastating. It led to the desertification of the Hamoun wetlands and destroyed its ecosystem, biodiversity and the local water-related economy. Sandstorms buried scores of villages, triggering a mass outmigration.
Worryingly for Iran, Sistan-Baluchistan, the country’s only Sunni-dominated province, is economically backward and has been the site of an armed insurgency for decades. The Iranian government is concerned that an economic crisis triggered by the Helmand dispute will further fuel the insurgency. The regime therefore needs to be perceived as doing everything in its power to address the water crisis. It is in this context that Raisi traveled to Sistan-Baluchistan and delivered his aggressive speech defending the water rights of the region’s people.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime is suffering from a severe legitimacy and credibility crisis. The water dispute with Iran allows it to divert public attention from its failed governance. Standing up to Iran’s threats is therefore important in order to rally people behind the regime. Amid the escalating tensions over the Helmand, Taliban rhetoric has acquired a markedly more radical tone. On the day of the clashes at the border, an account on Twitter that reportedly belongs to the Badri Unit, an elite commando force of the Taliban, tweeted “If the elders of the Islamic Emirate give permission for the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate, the Islamic Emirate’s mujahideen will conquer Iran within 24 hours, Allah willing.” Taliban officials even mocked the Iranians and dared them to attack Afghanistan.
Given how crucial water is for life and livelihoods, it is useful for regimes, and especially authoritarian ones, to utilize water-related disputes in order to rally public support. This is currently unfolding in Iran and Afghanistan.
Skirmishes over the Helmand’s waters have taken place before. Iran and Afghanistan have engaged in violent border clashes several times in the past and the frequency and intensity of these face-offs is growing. These are likely to assume increasingly serious proportions as the impact of climate change intensifies.
There is an urgent need for Iran and Afghanistan to engage in negotiations on Helmand’s waters. The Taliban regime has said it is committed to the 1973 accord. However, it has also said that Iran must take into consideration the impact of climate change. Neither the Taliban nor Iran can afford to opt for an all-out war over Helmand’s waters as their both experience dire economic situations. However, engaging in wars of words and periodic muscle-flexing at the border is useful to both regimes.
CONCLUSIONS: The recent clashes between Iranian and Taliban border guards underscores the need for the two sides to negotiate a settlement to the dispute over the Helmand. It may involve renegotiating the 1973 accord. More urgent is the need for the two sides to put in place confidence-building measures and conflict management mechanisms. There is a possibility of small skirmishes escalating quickly or even spreading geographically. Water conflicts evoke deep emotions and Afghans living in Iran and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan could become the target of violent attacks.