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IranSource July 7, 2023

Iran and Afghanistan are feuding over the Helmand River. The water wars have no end in sight.

By Holly Dagres

Water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan date back to as early as the 1870s. However, with the Taliban back in power in Kabul since 2021, the Helmand River has become an increasing topic of contention between the neighboring countries, particularly in recent months. A recent uptick in violence on the 580-mile border between Iran and Afghanistan came to a head on May 27, when border guards on both sides clashed, resulting in the death of one Taliban soldier and two Iranian guards. Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute with a focus on Afghanistan and Iran, speaks to IranSource editor Holly Dagres about why the Islamic Republic and Taliban are bumping heads on transboundary water issues and why the water wars are not ending any time soon.

IRANSOURCE: The Islamic Republic and the Taliban have been in high tensions recently since the militant group ceased power in Kabul. Both countries have a long-term dispute over shared transboundary waters, but what is different now?

FATEMEH AMAN: The difference this time was that two old issues—the dispute over shared water and clashes at the borders—coincided, which made the transboundary water issue more dramatic. First, let me explain the dispute over each country’s share of Helmand transboundary water.

Iran and Afghanistan’s water disputes have existed for over 150 years and go back to when Afghanistan was a British protectorate. Back then, a British officer drew the Iran-Afghan border along the main branch of the Helmand River. In 1939, serious discussions between the Iranian government of Reza Shah Pahlavi and the Afghan government of Mohammad Zahir Shah led to a treaty over water allocation to each country, which the Afghans never ratified. 

The dispute intensified in the 1950s when Afghanistan built two dams on the Helmand River.

Renegotiations continued until 1973, when the then-Iranian and Afghan prime ministers signed a treaty. In recent decades, and under different governments, the issue has taken a more dramatic turn. War, displacement of populations, lucrative dam buildings, disastrous water management, and the impact of climate change have all intensified the dispute. 

The good news is that there has been an agreement since 1973 known as the Helmand River Treaty. However, it needs to be reviewed and updated. Nevertheless, the prospect of both governments sitting down and finding a lasting solution is not very bright. 

Turning transboundary water rights into a political issue is a terrible idea. Both Tehran and Kabul use rhetoric rather than dialogue. Just recently, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned the Taliban “to take the issue of [Helmand] water and Iran’s share of water seriously.” The Taliban hit back with their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid stating that Iranian officials should present their request “using appropriate words.”

Besides the water dispute, there have been clashes at the border between Iran and Afghanistan. Tension and confrontation have happened frequently on the eastern border, including the most recent violent encounter in May, which occurred in Nimroz and Zabul, leaving several border guards from both sides dead. 

However, such clashes did not start with the Taliban government and have happened under previous governments as well. 

Both sides commonly blame each other for starting the fire, but eventually, Tehran and Kabul always calm down. The incidents are often called “mistakes” or “misunderstandings.” There are talks about forming a joint committee to quickly resolve the issues on the eastern border. However, I do not see any sign that the occasional clashes will end for good.

IRANSOURCE: Walk us through the Taliban’s relationship with Tehran. Is this the first time we’ve seen tension between the Islamic governments?

FATEMEH AMAN: Iran’s current relationship with Afghanistan has been chaotic since the Taliban took over in 2021. The Islamic Republic does not want to look like allies of the Taliban, as both view each other with mistrust. However, there are conflicting and somewhat confusing messages on the nature of the relationship.

Iran and the Taliban almost went to war in 1998 over a Taliban militant raid on the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, which left nine Iranians—eight diplomats and a journalist—dead. Iran deployed two hundred thousand army troops and seventy thousand members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the border area, but ultimately decided not to enter Afghanistan’s soil.

Iran has always tried to keep its presence in Afghanistan due to its significant concerns: shared transboundary water, drug trafficking, and border security. Iran takes the possibility of infiltration of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), into Iran from its eastern borders very seriously and firmly believes it is vulnerable from the eastern border it shares with Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, Iran kept some ties with some Taliban factions. Later, when the Taliban’s presence became more visible, Iran-Taliban ties also grew.

The emergence of IS-K in Afghanistan in 2015, as well as Tehran’s conclusion that the Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s future government was inevitable, prompted Iran to get closer to the Taliban. Iran tried to increase their influence within the group. The extent of the Taliban’s ties with Iran was revealed when the group’s former leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was killed in a US drone strike when returning to Pakistan from Iran in May 2016.

In 2018, Iran admitted to having hosted Taliban delegations in Iran. Iran was actively involved in the intra-Afghan dialogue, inviting Afghanistan’s opposing factions to Tehran for negotiations. At the time, a best-case scenario for Iran would have been an inclusive government with the participation of Iran-leaning factions. This did not happen. The Taliban took control of the government in 2021 and did not plan to form an inclusive government.

IRANSOURCE: Most governments do not recognize the Taliban. Does the Islamic Republic, and how does this impact discussions?

FATEMEH AMAN: No country has recognized the Taliban regime, as no country wants to be the first to recognize them. However, I think once one does, the others will follow.

Iran has not yet recognized the Taliban regime. However, the Afghan embassy in Tehran and the Afghan consulate in Mashhad have been taken over by the Taliban regime since 2021. Iran, like other countries, wants to use recognition as leverage. 

IRANSOURCE: Back to the dispute over shared water… The region has been going through a persistent drought. The Islamic Republic complains that Afghanistan is blocking the flow of water, and the Taliban claims there is not enough water to flow into Iran due to drought. How much is the drought in the southeast to blame on government mismanagement versus climate change?

FATEMEH AMAN: Several factors have contributed to the current situation, including the impact of climate change. Let us take the example of the Hamoun wetland drying up. The Lake Hamoun area is a transboundary wetland fed by the Helmand River.

Hamoun Lake, naturally fed by water flowing from the Helmand River, used to be the third-largest lake in Iran and played a vital role in the lives of people in southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province. However, it has nearly dried up due to several factors, including the disruption of water flow from Afghanistan to Iran. Other factors include unsustainable and profit-driven dam constructions, extensive canal creation, diverting Helmand River water to four giant reservoirs in Sistan and Baluchistan province, construction of dikes on the Iran-Afghan border (on Helmand) to prevent drug traffickers from entering Iran, and the introduction of invasive fish species by the Fisheries Company in the 1980s, which destroyed the entire vegetation cover of Hamoun.

With the disruption of water flow from Helmand into Iran, I was referring to the killing of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif in 1998 and the subsequent conflict between Iran and the Taliban. This led to the Taliban closing the Kajaki Dam’s sluices, obstructing the water flow from Helmand River to Iran, which ultimately halted the water supply to Hamoun. So, there is never a single reason for a catastrophe.

Both countries took steps to revitalize the Hamoun wetland on the Iran-Afghanistan border in 2015 and 2016. However, the efforts were cut for several reasons, including economic sanctions imposed on Iran that restricted international funds.

IRANSOURCE: Anti-regime protests continue in some parts of Iran, particularly in the impoverished southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Some may interpret the dire water situation as the clerical establishment purposely punishing the population for participating in protests. What is your read on this?

FATEMEH AMAN: Sistan and Baluchistan province is the most deprived province in Iran. Yes, there has been an unbelievable level of discrimination by the Shia-centric government against the Sunni-majority province. Yes, there needs to be more investment to improve the livelihoods of millions in that region. There has been disastrous water mismanagement in many parts of Iran, including Sistan and Baluchistan. However, the province’s critical water issue is unrelated to recent protests. 

The Islamic Republic had four decades since the 1979 revolution to invest in water and ensure that the region’s drinking water would not be dependent on transboundary water. But they failed. Their failed policies are more comprehensive than those in Sistan and Baluchistan. Many parts of the country face critical water shortages due to ineffective policies.

IRANSOURCE: Iranian lawmakers recently said Sistan and Baluchistan province only have three months of water left before it runs out. How will it impact the neglected population there? 

FATEMEH AMAN: As I said, the Islamic Republic had over forty years to invest in improving the water management system. They missed all opportunities. Unfortunately, authorities not only ignored experts’ warnings for many years, but they also prosecuted and imprisoned environmental activists working on the issue. Unless Iran reaches a lasting agreement with the Afghans, I do not see how things can be improved or stopped from worsening. We will probably see mass migration and more conflict in the future due to water and climate change.

IRANSOURCE: How will this dispute impact Afghan refugees in Iran?

FATEMEH AMAN: Before the 2021 Taliban rule, Iranian authorities could blackmail the Afghan government by threatening to send back millions of refugees to Afghanistan. Right now, they do not have this luxury. The Taliban would not care about refugees being forcibly returned. The only leverage Tehran has is recognition of the Taliban, which Iran is not giving away without some concessions. Iran will continue the same approach if the situation does not change.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since the Taliban regained power in August 2021, an estimated one million Afghans have sought refuge in Iran alone.

Unfortunately, refugees in many countries are used as scapegoats, and Afghan refugees in Iran are no exception. With the deepening dispute, the Afghans will experience more hardship in Iran. 

Further reading

Image: This undated image, taken in May 2023, shows residents fetching water from a tanker near the dried-up Lake Hamun. The Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan is affected by drought and water shortages. Scorching heat, drought and sandstorms are plaguing residents in the border region between Afghanistan and Iran. At times, water in the provinces is so scarce that it is brought to villages in tankers. Now the region became the scene of a bloody skirmish in late May, when an exchange of gunfire turned the border region into a battlefield. Just days earlier, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi had threatened the Taliban in a dispute over the water of an important border river.