Iran and Afghanistan exchanged heavy gunfire on May 27, killing two Iranian border guards as well as one Taliban solider, and wounding several others. Qassem Rezaei, the deputy commander of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), accused the Taliban forces of starting the conflict by shooting at the Iranian side. In an interview with Islamic Republic National News Agency (IRNA), Rezaei said, “Without observing international laws and good neighborliness, Taliban forces started shooting at the Sasoli checkpoint … drawing a decisive response.” On the other hand, the Taliban’s Defense Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khawarazmi accused the Iranian forces of firing toward Afghanistan in Nimroz province.
The outbreak of this clash on the border brought tension between Tehran and Kabul to a new high.
Disagreements over water rights have been the leading cause of recent border clashes between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. For decades, Iran and Afghanistan had a dispute over Helmand (Hirmand) River water supplies to Iran’s eastern provinces, mainly Sistan and Baluchistan, and Khorasan-e Razavi. The Helmand’s water is an essential source for the two countries on which they are heavily dependent for agriculture, fishing, and human consumption.
The roots of the dispute date back to the second Pahlavi era in Iran when Afghanistan constructed two dams — the Kajaki and Grishk — to curtail the Helmand’s flow into Iran. Since this issue had a negative impact on the relations between the two countries, in 1973, Tehran and Kabul signed an agreement over the apportionment of the lower Helmand River water. Under this agreement, Iran was entitled to receive 26 cubic meters of Helmand water per second, or 850 million cubic meters per year. However, the chain of event in the following years, including the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the emergence of the Taliban in 1994, prevented the full implementation of the agreement, leaving the two countries in dispute over their water rights.
Since then, different Afghan governments have continued building, repairing, and upgrading dams, including the Kamal Khan dam on the Helmand River, restricting the water flow to the Iranian provinces. Following its initial rise in 1994, the Taliban closed sluices of the Kajaki dam from 1998 to 2001 to decrease the flow of Helmand water to Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan. With Iran’s continued deprivation of Helmand water even after the fall of the Taliban, Tehran accused the Afghan government of supplying Iran with far less water than agreed in the 1973 treaty. The Iranians further condemned the construction of the Kamal Khan dam, calling it a violation of Iran’s water rights by the Afghan government. However, when the dam was completed in 2021, the then-Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said Afghanistan would no longer give free water to Iran and suggested Iran provide oil to Afghanistan in exchange for water.
Even after the re-emergence of the Taliban in 2021, many cities in eastern Iran still faced water shortages due to the reduction of Helmand water supplies. The Islamic Republic continues to accuse the current government of Afghanistan of violating its water rights. In an interview with the Iranian Tasnim News agency, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, said, “Last year, Iran received only 4 percent of its share of the river water.” He further mentioned, “The amount of water which comes from Afghanistan to our soil is not more than 27 million cubic meters… there is a big difference between the numbers stated in the water treaty and what happens.” Following Kazemi’s interview, the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, ordered the Iranian ministries of foreign affairs and energy to pursue the issue of the Helmand water treaty.
Raisi’s order followed a phone conversation between Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian and the acting foreign minister of the Taliban administration, Amir Khan Muttaqi. In that call, Amir Abdullahian requested the Taliban to open the gates of the Kajaki dam. In an interview with the Islamic Republic National News Agency (IRNA), Amir Abdullahian stated the purpose of contacting the Afghan authorities as follows: “Our clear request for the Afghan side is to open the gates of the Kajaki dam before the time is lost so that both their own people who are on the way and the people of Sistan can get hydrated.”
However, the Taliban rejected the request of the Iranian foreign minister, with Taliban officials saying that even by opening the dam gates, nothing would reach Iran due to low water levels. In response, Amir Abdullahian said that according to the 1973 treaty, this issue should be investigated by a joint technical team and further proposed such a team inspect the Kajaki dam.
With the intensification of tensions between the two countries over the Helmand’s water, Raisi, during a visit to Sistan and Baluchistan province on May 18, 2023, once again emphasized the Taliban’s need to recognize Iran’s water rights. In a public speech, he said, “I would like to tell the rulers of Afghanistan not to take my words as normal, but to take them very seriously. I warn the officials and rulers of Afghanistan to give the rights of the people and the region of Sistan and Baluchistan immediately.”
Raisi’s statements were met with a sharp reaction from the rulers of Afghanistan. In response to Raisi’s warning, the Taliban government issued a statement saying that the authorities of the Islamic Republic do not know about the situation of the river and they should increase their knowledge and then present their request with “appropriate words.” Additionally, General Mobeen, one of the Taliban commanders, in a video, claimed that there is no water in Helmand to be supplied to Iran by filling a bucket of water for Raisi. He further taunted, “Do not attack us. We are not afraid.”
Considering the Taliban statement and further actions very insulting, the Iranian foreign minister, in a speech at Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine on May 25, emphasized Iran’s policy of not recognizing the Taliban. He said: “We do not recognize the current ruling body of Afghanistan, and we emphasize the need to form a comprehensive government in Afghanistan. The Taliban are part of the reality of Afghanistan, not all of Afghanistan.” Amir Abdullahian went on to say, “Afghanistan is an important issue for us. We are unhappy with the fact that a comprehensive government has not been formed in Afghanistan, and we have announced this issue to the current rulers of Afghanistan.”
Just two days after Amir Abdullahian’s speech, on May 27, the border clash occurred between the Iranian border guards and Taliban forces. The outbreak of a border conflict between the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province brought the tensions between the countries to a new level, increasing the possibility of a military standoff.
With the intensification of tensions following the May 27 conflict, the Taliban sent U.S. military vehicles captured from the former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and Soviet-era tanks to Afghanistan’s border with Iran. Meanwhile, Abdul Hamid Khorasani, the commander of the “Nasser Badri” unit of the Taliban, published a video warning that “the Islamic Republic should owe gratitude to the patience of the Taliban elders; otherwise, my forces will fight Iran more eagerly than the jihad against the United States.” He added, “We will defend what our right is, and if the current situation continues, we will conquer Iran.”
Despite the Taliban’s efforts to improve the situation by removing Abdul Hamid Khorasani and arranging a meeting between the Taliban’s acting foreign minister and Iranian envoys to Afghanistan to discuss the Helmand River water rights, tensions have been rising. In a video published recently, a clash between Iranian forces and the Taliban was shown while Iranian construction workers were trying to reinforce the border between the two countries. In addition, pro-Taliban online accounts have also shared a video with a song calling on Acting Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob to reform Iran.
In favor of reducing the tensions, Qassem Rezaei announced that Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces were ready to help train the Taliban’s border guards, but Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, rejected his offer saying, “Our forces, especially those operating in the border areas, are highly trained.” He once again accused Iran of opening fire on Afghanistan, stating, “These clashes are caused by the disturbance by the Iranian forces and them opening fire in the first step.” Despite the desire of both sides to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means, such behaviors will prevent the improvement of relations between the two countries.