On 27th May, a severe border clash erupted between the security forces of Iran and the Taliban, resulting in the unfortunate demise of two Iranian soldiers and causing injuries to one Taliban member, as reported by the IRNA news agency.

Subsequently, it was noted that the clash involved the use of semi and light weapons and artillery. In response to this incident, KabulNow reported that Iran retaliated by reducing the electricity supply to Afghanistan’s Herat province, posing a significant threat to essential services such as hospitals, businesses, and schools.

The root cause of the sudden confrontation has been attributed to a longstanding water dispute that has persisted over the past few years. Despite establishing a short-term truce between the two parties, it appears unlikely to endure for an extended period due to their underlying structural and ideological hostilities.

Certain sources indicate that the 217th Taliban army corps, known as “Omari,” has been relocated from Panjshir to adjacent border regions. This relocation vividly illustrates the gravity and inclination of the current situation.

Following their triumph in two wars against formidable adversaries of the era, namely the USSR and the US-led allies, the Taliban harbor the conviction that they can readily vanquish the Iranian forces with little resistance.

This belief seems to stem from their observation of the considerable political and economic sanctions imposed on Iran, which have inflicted significant wounds upon the nation.

Historically, Iran has consistently provided support to the Northern Alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Masood, the arch-rival of the Taliban. This support can be attributed to concerns regarding the potential threat posed to the Shia population residing in the Hazara district.

The apprehension stems from the Taliban’s adherence to strict and orthodox Salafist views, which may jeopardize the religious practices and security of the Shia community.

The sudden resolution of the border dispute between the Taliban and Iran has brought forth two significant structural issues. The first issue pertains to the refugee crisis. Owing to the prolonged conflicts in Afghanistan, it is estimated that Iran currently shelters millions of Taliban refugees.

In recent years, Iran has been confronted with profound political and economic challenges, exacerbating the situation due to stringent imposed restrictions. This has resulted in significant difficulties for the country to effectively accommodate Afghan refugees and provide them with employment opportunities.

Consequently, this predicament has posed a burden on Iran’s national power, prompting authorities to take stringent measures against these refugees. The police chief of Razavi Khorasan province in Iran reported that approximately 9,000 Afghans residing in the country i1llegally have been repatriated to Afghanistan as part of a heavy crackdown on illegal immigration.

Secondly, and of paramount significance, the water dispute has emerged as a contentious issue between the two neighboring states.

The crux of this dispute lies in the utilization of the Helmand River, wherein Iran alleges that Afghanistan is engaged in unauthorized construction activities, specifically the Kamal Khan Dam, aimed at impeding the natural flow of water into the Sistan-Baluchistan region of Iran.

The uninterrupted water flow from the Helmand River is crucial for sustaining agricultural practices and fulfilling the domestic water requirements of the populace in the Sistan-Baluchistan province.

The Significance of the Helmand River for Iran

The Helmand River, spanning a length of 1,150 km, has its source in the northeastern region of the Maidan Wardak province. It follows a southward course, traversing through the Uruzgan province. Upon reaching the Helmand province, it meanders through the city of Lashkar Gah before ultimately reaching the Sistan marshes.

The river’s water plays a crucial role in sustaining the agricultural activities of Afghanistan and Iran, serving as a lifeline for the livelihoods of the local population in both regions.

It serves as a vital resource, particularly for the farmers, ensuring the production of essential crops and serving as a crucial component in the sustenance of the people’s daily sustenance.

However, despite the growing dispute over the water, the Taliban and Iran will need to find a way to address the issue due to its potential negative consequences. Given the underlying severe threats posed by the water conflict, both states are interdependent on one another; consequently, a truce will need to be sought out to resolve the situation.

Both Afghanistan and Iran face common threats from the Islamic State and the United States. While the US threat has diminished due to a significant withdrawal of forces, the Salafist-dominant group remains a serious concern for both countries, prompting their efforts to combat and eliminate the threat.

The Islamic State and the Taliban in Afghanistan hold a structural enmity despite both advocating jihad. The Islamic State views the Taliban as infidels, straying from Islam’s true path. Accusations include the Taliban’s ties with Iran and tolerating un-Islamic practices within Afghanistan. Iran is considered un-Islamic by the Islamic State and is seen as the “vanguard of Shias.”

Recently, an article was published in the pro-Taliban media outlet Al-Mersaad Media, which explored the alleged secret relations between Iran and ISIS. The article notably highlights the role of Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei, in influencing the activities of ISIS through covert means.

Hektemeyar is also cited in the article, pointing out Iran’s adoption of a similar strategy in Afghanistan as it had employed in Syria and Iraq.

This perspective from a pro-Taliban-backed media source provides insight into the perceptions of the Taliban regarding Iran, despite both entities facing imminent threats from the IS-K.

The former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had frequently leveled accusations against Iran for undermining the Afghan peace process. Pompeo alleged that Iran’s support and preference for militant groups within Afghanistan significantly impeded the progress of peace negotiations.

Consequently, the US authorities consistently urged the Taliban to sever their connections with the Islamic Republic. Gulbadin Hekmateyar, the leader of the Hizb-i-Islami party, corroborates this claim, asserting that the US compelled them to sever ties with the Taliban.

Supposedly, in the event of a potential conflict between Iran and Afghanistan in the future, a direct challenge would emerge for China and Pakistan. Given China’s substantial interests within this region and its recent recognition as a global mediator, it is expected that China would face significant challenges.

In light of these circumstances, China would need to navigate the complexities of this hybrid warfare to safeguard its strategic aims and objectives for the region.

While Pakistan, on the other hand, would be again struck with a dilemma. Having a direct and porous border with Afghanistan and Iran, Pakistan would be detested by many problems.

Many bordering indigenous people fled to Pakistan to find a safe place for them while burdening the already millions of refugees residing before. Secondly, this would even give an impetus to the growing nationalistic groups present in Baluchistan and Southern parts of KPK.

In sum, the Iran-Taliban rivalry and the geopolitical implications arising from their border clash and water dispute have far-reaching consequences for regional dynamics and international interests.

Resolving these disputes will require delicate diplomacy and careful consideration of the broader security and humanitarian implications. Only through concerted efforts and pragmatic approaches driven by national interests can the involved parties hope to find a viable resolution to these complex challenges.

*The writer is a student of International Relations at the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Islamabad. 

**The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the content of this article.

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