The Treaty of Hirmand Water Division; Are the Disputes Serious?
By: Mohammad Ali Nazari
In the year 1872, when British General Gold Smith finalized the border between Iran and Afghanistan, he addressed the issue of the water of the Hirmand River in his decree with a single sentence: “It must be completely understood that no action should be taken by either party that would interfere with the water necessary for irrigation for both sides.” Unfortunately, this sentence did not prevent future disputes over water. These conflicts sporadically occurred, impacting the relations between the two countries.
In 1938, five years into the reign of the young Zaher Shah, who had established good relations with Iran, the two countries agreed to resolve the issue of the Hirmand River’s water. These efforts, which had begun in the late period of Nader Khan, culminated in the signing of an agreement on the 6th of Dalw in 1938. Baqer Kazemi, the Iranian ambassador to Kabul, signed the agreement on behalf of Iran, while Ali Mohammed Khan, the then foreign minister, signed for Afghanistan. The first clause of the agreement stated: “The two states of Iran and Afghanistan agree to equally divide all the water of the Hirmand River that reaches Kamal Khan Dam annually, between Iran and Afghanistan from Kamal Khan Dam onwards.”
However, this agreement could not prevent disputes, leading to a new treaty between the two countries during the final years of Zaher Shah’s reign, which is still in effect. This treaty was signed in Kabul on 1972, by Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the Prime Minister of Iran, and Mohammad Musa Shafiq, the Prime Minister of Afghanistan.
According to clause A of article three of the 1972 treaty, the amount of water that should normally flow from the Hirmand River towards Iran in a year is 22 cubic meters per second, with an additional four cubic meters per second added as a goodwill gesture.
Therefore, Iran should, on average, receive 26 cubic meters of water per second. The amount of water received varies each month. The highest amount of water will be received in February, reaching 78.16 cubic meters per second, and the least amount will be in September, which will decrease to 2.23 cubic meters. This treaty, in addition to determining Iran’s share of the Hirmand River, has also determined the method and location of water measurement and the method of resolving water disputes.
In case of drought, Iran’s water quota decreases proportionally with the water reduction. The treaty also has two annexes: the first deals with the appointment of a commissioner, his deputy, and his advisors from both countries for the implementation of the treaty and conflict prevention, and the second explains the jurisdiction issue (in case of serious disputes) and how to select a three-member arbitration council. Therefore, any dispute or conflict arising over the issue of Hirmand water has a predetermined solution.
Now that the Taliban, with the support of some countries, including Iran, are relying on their power base in Kabul, they still lack any internal and international legitimacy. On the other hand, this group does not adhere to international practices and ignores the conventions Afghanistan has joined.
Nevertheless, on the issue of Hirmand water, they have repeatedly stated in response to Iranian authorities that they adhere to the 1972 treaty, but there is no water in the Kamal Khan Dam to flow towards Iran. It should also not be overlooked that there is often a significant difference between accepting a matter in words and implementing it in the Taliban regime. The illegitimacy of the Taliban regime and this group’s non-adherence to international practices make dealing with this group difficult.
In the current conflict, Iranian authorities and some of the country’s citizens have so far directed harsh and serious words towards Afghanistan. On the other side, the Taliban authorities have thus far avoided speaking harshly towards Iran; however, some low-ranking members of this group have mocked the Iranian President, and a few have even threatened the country with yellow barrel bombs and sung Taliban songs. The question here is whether the current conflict over Hirmand water is serious? And do the threats from Iranian officials and lower-ranking Taliban fighters signal the seriousness of the conflict?
The answer to the two questions above is “no.” Engaging in a military conflict is not beneficial for either Iran or the Taliban. It appears that verbal tensions and issuing warnings also serve domestic consumption for both sides. Although an Iranian military commander stated that the Taliban group is smaller than the one they attacked, the reality is that Iran, considering its internal problems such as inflation, labor protests, the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, the JCPOA, the nuclear energy issue, the shadow of ISIS in its neighborhood, and its similarities to the Taliban, does not see a reason to attack and lacks the capacity to do so. The warning about water is also issued to manage public opinion in Iran and quell the protests of the people of Sistan and Baluchestan.
Since its establishment, the Islamic Republic of Iran has faced criticism from some Iranian citizens. These criticisms and protests, which were also voiced by supporters and advocates of the Islamic Republic like Ayatollah Montazeri, did not bring about any changes in the policies of the Islamic Republic. Throughout the more than four decades of its existence, the line of protesters has grown longer and the line of supporters has grown shorter, steadily and silently, every year. In 2009, the “Green Movement” challenged the rule of the Supreme Leader with large street protests, and since then, protests have been held on various issues and suppressed by the Iranian government. One good examples was the protests that occurred ten years after the Green Movement, in response to the increase in fuel prices in 2019.
However, the most serious protests occurred last year following the killing of Mahsa Amini by the Islamic Republic’s morality police (Gasht-e Ershad), which is still ongoing. According to analysts, this was the most serious protest against the Islamic Republic in the four decades of its history and the most significant challenge the regime has faced. Until last year, the slogans revolved around reforming the system, including slogans such as “Respect for the President, Abandon the Government” or “Our enemy is right here, they lie and say it’s America.” From last year until now, the slogans have taken a significantly different tone. Now, Iranian protesters no longer chant slogans for reforming the system or protest against it, but, according to their own words, their “target is the system” itself. They are no longer satisfied with anything less than the overthrow of the regime. On the other hand, labor protests continue to be serious and intensify. Teachers have always been a protesting profession, and the confrontation of the Islamic Republic of Iran with them has been harsh, resulting in the imprisonment of their organizers. Members of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, which emerged after the death of Mahsa Amini, are still in line for execution, and reports of group executions in the prisons of the Islamic Republic are received on a daily basis. In such a situation, the protests of the people of Sistan and Baluchestan regarding water scarcity and drought have multiplied the fear of the Iranian government. All of this has led the President of Iran, Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, to send strong words to the Taliban (a group that is also supported from Tehran). Raisi said in Sistan and Baluchestan, “Water is our right. We have made every effort, and we will make every effort, to restore this right, and we hope that the other side will fulfill its commitments.”
The Taliban also do not see a reason to fight with Iran, considering the group’s internal problems and the need to consolidate power and seek international recognition. This group does not have any interest in creating a new problem with Iran. According to Taliban authorities, water has decreased in Afghanistan due to climate change, and this decrease is not limited to the Hirmand River but affects the whole country. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the Taliban cannot control the volume of water that flows towards Iran, as it depends on natural circumstances such as rain and snowfall.
Thus, the threat of the lower-ranking members of the Taliban towards Iran does not seem serious, and the Taliban leaders have also denied the authenticity of the yellow barrel bomb threats. According to the authorities, such statements are not consistent with the policies of the Islamic Emirate, and anyone who issues these types of threats will be dealt with according to Sharia law.
The yellow barrel bomb issue is also a game of public opinion for the Taliban to address its internal audiences. The Taliban regime is also under heavy pressure internally. People in Afghanistan’s cities, including Kabul, are in dire living conditions due to high inflation, unemployment, and shortages of essential goods. The situation in Afghanistan’s rural areas, which make up about three-quarters of the country, is also alarming. The country’s farmers are grappling with drought due to a decrease in rain and snowfall, and a sharp decline in agricultural products has caused severe food insecurity in these areas.
In such a situation, the Afghan government needs to divert the attention of its people from the pressing problems. Therefore, they have initiated this game with Iran regarding the Hirmand water issue. It can be said that the issue of water, as a dispute between the two countries, is more of a tool for domestic consumption, to manage public opinion, and to shift the blame onto others.
The conflicts and disputes that have arisen so far on the Hirmand water issue have not been significant. They have mostly been resolved through diplomatic channels and have not turned into a serious confrontation between the two countries. The disputes that arise from time to time between Iran and Afghanistan over the Hirmand River’s water should be seen in the context of public opinion games and internal consumption for both sides. Given this, it is highly unlikely that these disagreements will lead to serious and widespread conflicts between the two countries.
To manage the mounting internal issues, the Iranian authorities have resorted to escalating rhetoric on the Hirmand water dispute, much like their Afghan counterparts. The Islamic Republic of Iran has faced criticism from its citizens since its establishment, which has intensified over the years. These protests and criticisms have led to several significant social movements, including the “Green Movement” in 2009 and the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement following the death of Mahsa Amini.
The authorities’ failure to address these issues has resulted in growing discontent and unrest among the populace. The issue of water scarcity and drought, particularly in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, has given rise to further protests. In this context, President Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi’s strong warnings to the Taliban regarding the Hirmand River’s water distribution can be seen as an attempt to manage public opinion in Iran and suppress the ongoing protests.
Meanwhile, the Taliban, grappling with a lack of legitimacy and popularity, are using the situation to their advantage. Given the low literacy rates in Afghanistan, public opinion is easily swayed. Taliban advisors guide the teams working in media management and social media cooperation to capitalize on this situation.
In response to the Iranian President’s recent statements, the Taliban issued an official statement urging Iran to refrain from provocative statements and express their demands more diplomatically. Yet, some lower-ranking Taliban fighters have responded with threats, exacerbating the situation.
These exchanges have been viewed with concern by both nations’ citizens, causing additional tension. The issues of Afghan migrants in Iran and the potential for increased pressure on them due to this water dispute add a further layer of complexity to the situation.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that these disagreements and threats, while significant, have so far been largely verbal. It would be in neither Iran’s nor the Taliban’s interest to escalate these disputes into physical conflict. Therefore, it is essential to refer back to the 1351 treaty and its appendices to resolve the water issue, avoiding the manipulation of migrants as pawns in this public opinion game.