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Growing Tension Between Iran and Afghanistan

Iran and Afghanistan have a common border, similar languages and cultures, and in many ways, common regional interests. Though ties between Iran and Afghanistan existed for centuries, modern relations were established between these two countries in 1935 by King Zahir Ahah of Afghanistan and the Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi. Many Afghans speak the Persian dialect Dari, which is also one of the official languages of Afghanistan, and celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year.

The relations between these countries were badly affected by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and issues related to Afghanistan after 1978 to the present state of affairs, such as Afghan conflicts, Afghan Refugees, the rise of the Taliban, Iranian water disputes, the US-led west’ interference in Afghanistan, etc. But in 2019 Iranian government passed a law to grant residency status to Afghan nationals having scientific and professional qualifications.

When the Taliban took over the Afghan government in 2021, new challenges to this relationship cropped up. These problems include access to water from the rivers flowing from Afghanistan, the illegal Afghan refugees in Iran, the movement of illicit drugs into Iran, and the Taliban targeting Shia Muslim communities.

As per Reuters, on 03 Jul 2022, Iranian border authorities and Taliban border guards were involved in skirmishes at the Iran-Afghan border in Baluchistan. One Afghan was killed. Iran claims the clash happened as Taliban forces tried to raise their flag in an area that is not Afghan territory. This skirmish, though minor compared to fighting in other areas, suggests the mounting tensions. On 14 Aug 2022, an Iranian delegation reached Kabul to discuss border issues with Afghanistan, water rights, and the influx of refugees. This concurred with the July fight in the Darwish area of Kang district of Nimruz Province of Afghanistan, where at least one Taliban soldier was killed.

The Afghanistan–Iran border is 921 km long and runs from the tripoint with Turkmenistan in the north to the tripoint with Pakistan in the south. The border between Persia and Afghanistan was ratified between 1872-1935 by a series of third-party arbitrations, originating from the  Treaty of Paris in 1857, in which Persia and Afghanistan decided to refer any dispute between them to Britain for mediation. It is pertinent to mention that at that time, Britain controlled large parts of India, including what is now called Pakistan. The border was primarily drawn in 1872 when Iran requested a British committee headed by Sir Frederic to redraw the border line after many clashes at the border. This border drawing was generally accepted, but tensions remain in some areas. The area along the border is mainly arid, with less habitation, except for the Lake Hamun area near the Zabol-Zaranj border in the southern region.

The three major border crossings are Islam Qala in the northern area, Abu Nasr Farahi in the middle, and the Zaranj border crossing in the Baluchistan area in the southern. The Zaranj border crossing is central. Most of the goods and products enter Afghanistan through the Zaranj crossing. Also, Afghan refugees make efforts to enter Iran. This area surrounding eastern Iran, western Afghanistan, and some parts of Central Asia is known in Persian as Khorasan and was recognised as a different region during the Sasanian dynasty (224–651 CE). This was the last Iranian (Hindu) dynasty before the coming of Islam. This area is vital in Iranian mythology and plays a significant role in Persian legends and folktales (Zeidan). Major cities in Iran and Afghanistan near the border are Mashhad in Iran and Herat and Zaranj in Afghanistan. Zaranj is where maximum smuggling of goods and illegal crossings occur.

The water rights. The River Helmand originates in the Sanglakh range of the Hindu Kush in Northeastern Afghanistan. It then flows southwest across Afghanistan, passing through the city of Lashkargah and ultimately nourishing the Hamun Lake on the southern border of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This is the primary source of water for the Sistan Basin in southwest Afghanistan and southeast Iran. The lake has no channels of opening, so the water that flows into the lake stays there or evaporates. Iran’s largest freshwater lake is essential for the economy and environmental growth.

Lake Hamun is in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan, the poorest province in Iran. Between 1999 and 2001, a severe drought in the region led to a shrinking of water supply; in some areas, the lake completely dried up. The Iranian government estimated that about 25% to 30% of the population in the region shifted to other areas in the past two-three decades has left the area over the past two decades due to a water shortage and moved to the suburbs of Iranian cities. In 2016, UNESCO declared Lake Hamun a world biosphere reserve to preserve the lake’s ecological, cultural, and economic importance. The water from Helmand is vital to farmers from Iran and Afghanistan, and conflicts have lately erupted on who controls the water. Over the years, Afghanistan has constructed dams to control water flow from the Helmand River for irrigation and hydroelectric power, restricting the amount of water going to Iran.

Iran has an issue with Afghanistan regarding the building of the Kamal Khan Dam in Afghanistan on the lower Helmand. The dam is located about 96 km southeast Zaranj and about 100 km from the border. The construction work on the dam began in 1996 but was suspended due to fighting in Afghanistan. The construction work on the project started again in 2014, and the dam was commissioned in March 2021. Iran has expressed concerns about the dam, fearing it would shut off or dramatically reduce its water supply for this arid region.

Iran and Afghanistan 1973 signed a water-sharing agreement giving Iran the right to 22 cubic meters per second of water with a rider of an extra four cubic feet. Iran says that this is not a reasonable distribution and that it should get more share of water. On 03 Aug 2022, Mujeeb-ur-Rahman Omar, Taliban deputy minister of energy and water, expressed that the Taliban government will not grant Iran extra water supply as was agreed upon in the treaty.

The problem of Refugees. Another issue that has triggered tension between Afghanistan and Iran is the influx of refugees. When the Taliban took over in August 2021, it was assessed that there were over three million Afghan refugees in Iran, of which 780,000 were registered, and 586,000 were admitted with passports and visas. But there is no exact number of non-registered refugees. Nevertheless, the refugees in Iran come from all areas of Afghanistan. However, the majority of  Refugees represent ethnic groups, mostly Tajiks (Persian speakers) or Hazara (Shia Muslims undergoing persecution in Afghanistan). Afghan refugees who are legitimately registered in Iran have some support. The children of refugees are allowed to go to school, avail medical services, and marry Iranian women. But the situation is not suitable for those Afghans in Iran who are not officially registered, perhaps most Afghans in Iran. Afghan refugees fleeing to Iran have increased with the Taliban takeover. In 2021 the Norwegian Refugee council projected that as many as 4,000-5,000 Afghans are escaping to Iran daily (Jazeera 2021).

Mostly, illegal migrants to Iran are crossing from the Zaranj area on the southern border. The place has been overflowing with Afghan people. Iran has now started deporting illegal migrants to Afghanistan. About one million refugees have been sent back to Afghanistan in the past year. However, people are attempting to cross over to Iran again and again. The refugees’ situation has affected the relations between Iran and Afghanistan.

The menace of drugs. Afghanistan has been the world’s leading producer of opium for the last several decades. It is now venturing into the production of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines. In 2020, opium production was reported, with over 6,000 tons of opium and 320 tons of pure heroin, supplying 85% of the global opium production (UNODC, 2021). This drug trade creates more than 2 billion dollars, most of which goes to smugglers and traffickers and less to the farmers. These drugs are trafficked through Iran, Pakistan, or north Central Asia.

The persecution of Shias in Afghanistan. On 06 Aug 2022, at least eight people were killed,  and eighteen others were injured in Kabul on Friday during the Shia community mourning gathering following the holy month of Muharram. On 07 Jun 2022, the Taliban closed the offices of two Shiite clerics in Ghazni. The development comes after the Taliban rejected the US annual report on the persecution of religious minorities in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s insurgency and civil war have torn the Shiite community apart for decades. “Hazaras of Afghanistan have suffered more than a thousand deaths and injuries during the National Unity Government (NUG) in the last five years. Almost all suicide and orchestrated attacks, along with various target killings, beheading and kidnapping, have been proclaimed by the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-PK). It surpluses the blatant discrimination of Afghan government and unclear security prospect steaming from the rapid reemergence of the Taliban and new anti-Hazaras radical groups such as IS-PK across the country.” (UNHRC, Report 2019). In its annual report on 24 Apr 2022, the US Commission International Religious Freedom says religious minorities have faced harassment, detention and even death due to their faith or beliefs since the Taliban reimposed its rule in Afghanistan. This has further strained the relations between Iran and Afghanistan.

Conclusion: Afghanistan and Iran are the major trading partners since they share an extensive border length. The road to Central Asia passes through Afghanistan. In 2013 the trade between the two touched 40 million US dollars but declined to 20 million dollars in 2019. When the US-led forces exited Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban returned to power and expressed its desire to continue its trade with Iran, including fuels and energy. Iran is also seen as a significant source of Afghanistan’s economic recovery.

Also, with the exit of the US-led forces in Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban to power and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the great powers have shifted their goal posts to Eastern Europe from West Asia. This shift in geopolitics could lead to the re-emergence of terrorism and fundamentalism in Afghanistan and surrounding countries.

In this scenario, India has a significant role to play. India shares historical relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. There are similarities between Iran and India’s relations with Afghanistan, and they can fast-track implementation of the strategically important trade transient agreement signed on 23 May 2016. Also, the conclusion of the Chabahar Port deal has provided the push necessary to lay the road link from Chabahar to Afghanistan to facilitate quicker and more efficient trade and link further to the Central Asian Region.

Lastly, with the help of intellectuals from Iran, Afghanistan and other countries in the Central Asia Region, India could lay a foundation for a Multicultural Society to promote peace, prosperity and development. This would help counter the region’s fundamentalism to a great extent.

 

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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