Recent developments on the border of Afghanistan and Iran highlight the growing complexities in the region after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the takeover by the Taliban. This conflict involves yet another neighbor of Iran that has a complex relationship with the regime in Tehran. It is also part of a larger picture of regional power plays that include China, which has ventured to new territory in the Muslim world.
Jon Gambrell from The Associated Press reported that on May 28, heavy fire was exchanged on the Iran-Afghanistan border, killing and wounding troops. This gunfire exchange had to do with water rights and a multi-year drought.
According to Gambrell, “Drought has been a problem in Iran for some 30 years, but has worsened over the past decade, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The Iran Meteorological Organization says that an estimated 97% of the country now faces some level of drought.”
The Tehran Times stated that an Iranian border guard was killed and two civilians were wounded during the exchange of gunfire. Iran blamed the shooting on the Afghan side and noted that the interim Taliban government said an Afghan border guard was also killed.
The Tehran Times noted that the Commander of the Iranian Army’s Ground Force, Brigadier General Kioumars Heidari, said, “If the neighboring state respects international border regulations, we will observe the principles of good neighborliness in return and display mutual respect.”
Radio Free Europe quoted Taliban Defense Ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khawarazmi: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers dialogue to be a reasonable way for any problem, Making excuses for war and negative actions is not in the interest of any of the parties.”
A video uploaded to YouTube by the Hindustan Times shows Taliban fighters attacking Iranian positions. The Taliban have threatened to conquer Tehran if the Iranians do not back down.
What Caused This Dispute Between the Taliban and Iran?
This exchange of gunfire is a result of a dispute concerning water rights previously agreed upon in a bilateral treaty signed between Afghanistan and Iran in 1973. As Radio Free Europe notes, “According to the 1973 treaty, Afghanistan is committed to sharing water from the Helmand River with Iran at the rate of 26 cubic meters of water per second, or 850 million cubic meters per year.
“But the accord also allows for less water to be delivered in cases of low water levels, which have been affected by persistent drought and the construction of new dams in Afghanistan, including the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River that was completed in 2021 shortly before the Taliban seized power in Kabul.”
Taliban-Iran Relations Are Complex Due to Religious Differences
The relations between Iran and the Taliban are complex. There is an underlining religious schism between Shia Iran and the Sunni Taliban; both are extremist groups and see the other sect as borderline heretical.
After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, there were signs that the two groups would have some basis for cooperation on the basis of their mutual hate of the U.S. However, the underlying tensions between these two sects run deep.
For instance, the Taliban has put pressure on the Shia minority in Afghanistan, according to Minority Support Pakistan. Also, Iran has never hidden the fact that it runs its foreign affairs to promote Shia hegemony.
In addition, Iran has problems with its other neighbors. For example, Azerbaijan recently hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog, according to The Jerusalem Post. This visit highlighted the strong military connections between the two countries and gives Israeli intelligence a base of operations on the Iranian border.
Tehran has made it clear that it is keeping an eye on Israeli operations in Azerbaijan, notes the Tehran Times. The rising tensions with the Taliban are an important development for anyone wishing to keep Iran in check.
This latest development between Iran and the Taliban also shines a light on another neighbor of Afghanistan: China. China will do whatever it can to increase its influence in a neighboring country.
For instance, China entered into an agreement with the Taliban government concerning its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) according to Axios, and there have been steady reports of Chinese business activity in Afghanistan. How deep these economic connections will grow remains to be seen, but Chinese activities in Afghanistan are just another goal in China’s foreign policy agenda.
Recently, China has forged new paths in foreign relations. For instance, the Chinese government brokered an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March, according to Time magazine. This is the same China that persecuted Muslims in its territory for years and has imprisoned tens of thousands of Uygur Muslims in reeducation camps, but evidently that does not stop Beijing from increasing its influence in the Muslim world.
The latest clash between Iran and the Taliban shows that the glee in Tehran after the fall of Afghanistan might be premature. It will be important to see the role that China will play in this context.
A realignment in global politics, especially concerning Iran and the Taliban, is taking place before our eyes. The role of the U.S. in world politics will change; the only question is how.