Is Tension Growing Between the Taliban and Iran?
By: Ali Sajad Mawlaee
In 2020, as peace talks between the former government and the Taliban group were taking place in Qatar, Iran began to interact with the Taliban, preparing for a post–American Afghanistan. During Ashraf Ghani‘s rule, Afghanistan‘s relationship with Iran had its ups and downs. Ghani supported Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen and, after a period of delay, made a trip to Iran, which marked the start of deteriorating relations between the two sides. Over the course of Ghani‘s six–year administration, tensions between Iran and Afghanistan were high, particularly concerning the Helmand River and Iran‘s water rights. Ghani used the water issue for propaganda purposes, publicly stating that Afghanistan would not give away its water for free and that it was a matter of honor. This tone was not well–received by the Iranian side, and the construction of dams during Ghani‘s era further exacerbated the situation, leading Iranians to interact with the Taliban. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated in an interview with an Indian channel that the future of Afghanistan was impossible without the Taliban, and in another interview with TOLO News, he referred to the Taliban as part of the solution to the Afghan crisis. Iranian media welcomed the Taliban, claiming that they had changed from the fundamentalist group of the 90s. Iranians believed that with the Taliban in power, their relations would improve and the water issue would be resolved. However, the current tensions are not what Iran had anticipated.
On August 15, 2021, the government of Ghani fell and many countries withdrew from Afghanistan, with the exception of Iran, which stayed. The agents of Iran‘s foreign policy, who had been dissatisfied with the prior governments of Afghanistan, were hopeful when the Taliban came to power, viewing them as “the original movement of the region“. Additionally, Iran is one of the countries that transferred the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban and has close ties with this group. By being close to the Taliban, the Iranians are pursuing two objectives.
The first goal of Iran is to address the water issue. Sistan and Balochistan are facing an unprecedented and severe water shortage, which has recently caused many reactions within Iran. The first criticism was made by Ayatollah Khamenei‘s special representative for Sistan and Balochistan. In the last few days, these criticisms have intensified, reaching the Foreign Minister and the President of Iran. In response to the statement of Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid about water rights, Iran‘s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir–Abdollahian stated that the existence of water is determined by a technical and objective visit, not by issuing a political statement. Subsequently, on May 20, 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran published a statement saying, “Numerous statements denying the legal rights of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the issue of drought and low water in Helmand, require expert investigations in accordance with the provisions of the treaty and so far it has not been verified by the experts of the Islamic Republic of Iran, therefore, adopting such positions is illegal and unacceptable.” The President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, has previously told the Taliban in a stern manner to grant Iran‘s water rights, urging the Taliban to take his remarks seriously so that they do not complain later.
Iran‘s second objective in its close relationship with the Taliban is to address the issue of Islamic State–Khorasan (ISS–K). The presence of ISS–K in Afghanistan is a complex matter, and has become a source of concern for neighboring countries. Iran is apprehensive about the potential spread of ISS–K into its own territory, and thus works with the Taliban to contain it.
It appears that the water issue in Helmand will have an impact on the relationship between the two sides. The Iranian side has asked the Taliban to permit Iranian experts to assess the water level in the Kajaki Dam, but the Taliban have yet to respond.
Hossein Deliriyan, the spokesperson of the Iranian Space Organization, stated in a tweet that the country had monitored the course of the Helmand River using the Khayyam satellite. Iran has accused the Taliban of concealment and has requested experts to investigate the waters of the Helmand River.
It is evident that the water dispute between Iran and the Taliban has become increasingly severe, thus causing the relationship between the two sides to enter a new stage. This tension has made it clear that neither side is interested in engaging in war, and the tension is not yet at a level that would necessitate a military solution. However, Iran has other methods of pressuring the Taliban.
Iran is likely to use political pressure as a means of exerting influence on the Taliban. As one of the few countries with diplomatic relations with the Taliban, Iran has an embassy in Kabul and the Taliban control the Afghan embassy in Tehran. These embassies are of great importance to the Taliban, and they are unwilling to lose them. Iran can threaten the Taliban from this area and put pressure on the group, or if it gets close to the opposition fronts of the Taliban, this could be dangerous for the Taliban and lead to the strengthening of the opposition fronts. Nevertheless, Iran will attempt to use dialogue and diplomacy with the Taliban to achieve its objectives.
Iran‘s second option is to deport Afghan immigrants who have been residing in Iran for many years. Various Iranian authorities have threatened that if the Taliban do not grant Iran its water rights, they will carry out the deportation. Immigration has always been a tool of pressure for Iran. Currently, there are several million Afghans working in Iran. If Iran decides to deport these immigrants, it will have a negative impact on Afghanistan‘s economy. Most of these people migrated to Iran due to unemployment, and if they are deported, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan will increase and the family economy will be further strained.
In any event, water is of paramount importance to Iran and it will pursue the matter with all its might. Unless the two sides come to an accord, tensions will escalate. However, at present, the possibility of a military confrontation is unlikely and both sides are eager to settle the issue through dialogue. It is evident that the period of amicable relations between Iran and the Taliban has come to an end.