Dispute over water reaches boiling point as Taliban threatens to capture Iran
Analysis by Mikhail Shereshevskiy
ANALYTICS 01 June 2023 - 16:03
The Taliban movement expelled the US army and government in 2021, established its dictatorship, and renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Today it threatens to take over the Islamic Republic of Iran. And all because of water.
The water problem is one of the key issues in the Greater Middle East. Factors such as the huge population and the need to provide it with food amid many arid areas engender acute conflicts between and within countries. The Saur (uprising) in Syria in 2011 was due to a drop in the water level of the Euphrates River and the flight of a million ruined farmers to cities; the 2019 uprisings in Iraq were similarly caused by water issues - residents in the Shiite south were partially deprived of access to clean water.
Iraq and Syria make their allegations against Türkiye, claiming it is allegedly taking water from rivers for its own needs. The Turks deny the claim. There are tensions between Ethiopia on the one hand and Egypt and Sudan on the other, with Addis Ababa having built GERD - the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydroelectric dam that draws water from the Nile threatening agrarian regions in neighbouring countries. In Iran itself, the drying up of the Karoun and Zayanderud rivers has led to mass protests in recent years. The relationship between Iran and Afghanistan can be seen in the light of the same problem.
Recently, clashes erupted on the Iran-Afghan border over a water dispute. The Taliban opened fire on an Iranian border post with large-calibre machine guns. Several fighters from both sides were killed in the clash. Iranian media said the incident was related to drug trafficking, but almost all observers explain the incident differently.
Water relations between Iran and Afghanistan are governed by an agreement dating back to 1973. Despite the turbulent history of both countries, it has been implemented even during the years of Soviet and later US occupation. Iran gets water from the Helmand River (which flows through the territory of both states) using the reservoir built in Afghanistan. This is a critical issue because the lives and well-being of more than a million people in Iran's Sistan and Baluchistan provinces depend on obtaining this water.
The agreement has been implemented to a modest degree under all governments, despite occasional problems. Nevertheless, Iran was a country that provided some financial and military support to the Taliban when they were fighting the Americans and the pro-American regime. Money and weapons were given to the movement's militants fighting in Helmand province. Tehran had its reasons for this.
Firstly, it wanted to ensure the departure of hostile Americans from a neighbouring country, and secondly, to hedge its risks: "What if the Taliban comes back to power? Then, maybe we will establish relations with them and all will be well with Helmand's waters".
The Taliban returned to power in 2021, marking another example of the effectiveness of guerrilla asymmetric warfare. With it, they achieved national independence. But after that things were not going well for Iran, and indeed for Afghanistan itself.
Afghanistan began to collapse economically. That's not surprising, considering the country's economy had quadrupled in the 20 years of American occupation, while the state budget of the pro-American regime for 3/4 consisted of international assistance provided by dozens of countries and non-governmental organizations. Aid has almost come to an end. Moreover, the winning Taliban had no administrative experience. The country plunged into poverty.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on the planet. It has remained so during the 20 years of American occupation; along with the violence of counter-guerrilla operations, it does not do the US leadership any credit. However, the Taliban did not solve, but rather exacerbated the problems, pushing half of the population of 40 million to the brink of starvation. It should be added that the Taliban is a Pashtun Islamist movement. The main body of the militants is made up of extremely conservative Pashtun peasants, and the top brass are wealthy Pashtun khans, landowners, and drug traffickers.
The Pashtun peasantry is no more than one-third of the country's population. To most Afghans, including the 4 million inhabitants of Kabul who speak a predominantly Afghan-Persian Dari language, the Pashtun Taliban with their ultra-orthodox version of Sunni Islamism and tribal codes are completely alien. They are not another people, they are another civilisation alien to most Afghans. To their great regret, they are the only people who have mastered the skills of guerrilla warfare perfectly and have taken over the country. But apart from fighting, they know little.
The adventurism and inefficiency of the Taliban administration extend to foreign policy as well. In spite of Afghanistan's vast wealth (natural reserves of lithium and other minerals are estimated at trillions of dollars) and the obvious interest of its neighbours (Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia) as well as a number of Muslim countries - from Türkiye to the Persian Gulf monarchies - in economic and political cooperation with this country, the Taliban state is still not recognised by anyone in the world. The reason is that the Taliban are extremely difficult negotiators, it is very difficult to find common ground with them.
It is exactly the same with Iran-Taliban relations. Shortly after the Taliban came to power in 2021, the Iranians started complaining that they were not getting enough water from Helmand. The Taliban responded that there was not much water in the reservoir and that natural phenomena were the cause. In fact, it seems that the Taliban decided to let local Afghan farmers use this water to their advantage.
As mentioned above, the water issue is a critical one for Iran. The country is in constant revolt against the regime; it is the lack of water that is often the cause of mass protests. The government in Tehran, to put it mildly, has no interest in exacerbating it.
In May, Iranians lost patience. President Raisi issued the following statement: "If our experts confirm that there is no water in the reservoir, then there is no question. But if the water is there, then you, the Taliban, have an obligation to ensure the rights of the people of Iran's Sistan and Balochistan provinces. Take my words seriously so you won't regret it later".
To this, Abdulhamid Khorasani, one of the Taliban's military leaders, said in a video message that he would fight the Iranians "with more passion" than against US troops. He added: "We will soon conquer Iran if the Taliban leaders give the green light to jihad." In addition, another video has surfaced mocking Raisi. In the video, a Taliban member fills a water canister, sarcastically addressing the Iranian president, "Mr. Raisi, take this barrel of water and don't attack, we are scared."
The Taliban's main response was an attack on an Iranian roadblock.
But why are the Taliban so aggressive? Don't they have enough problems? Their government has no international recognition today, social systems are deteriorating, and the country is on the verge of starvation having a vast wealth. Why quarrel with a generally friendly Iran, which recently did so much for these militants?
As has already been said, the Taliban have little administrative and diplomatic experience. But perhaps it's not even so much a matter of that as of the fact that their thinking is archaic. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's words contained a threat but were also an invitation to negotiate on the water issue. This was a typical Persian tactic - a combination of subtle diplomacy (remember, they helped the Taliban for a long time and tried to negotiate with them), pressure, and threats.
But the clever tactic did not work, as the Taliban, with their archaic mindset typical of warlike tribesmen, took the Persians' words as an insult and a challenge. They interpreted Raisi's words as a threat to come and check if they are not violating the 1973 agreement on the water supply to Iran.
In the world of the Pashtun Khans and tribes, the challenge can and probably should be met with an escalation of violence, as they believe. Besides, a treaty signed by some "infidels" 50 years ago means little to the Taliban, as does the help the Iranians have provided them in the past, and a demand to check the water level of a reservoir on Afghan territory is perceived as an attempt by a neighbour to come into your house and see how you use your well.
The only way to respond to such a situation, according to the Taliban, is to escalate by attacking Iran and, at the same time, making more and more threats in its direction. It is unlikely that the Taliban will invade Iran, but they are making it clear that they are capable of much.
However, the problem is not just the Taliban. The Iranian regime was among those who helped nurture this movement. Now it is reaping the fruits of its deeds.
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