Worsening Relations between Iran and Afghanistan?

by Fatemeh Aman

According to The New York Times, Iran is sending weapons on helicopters to help the Taliban destabilize Afghanistan. Iran is sabotaging Afghan markets to promote Iranian goods, stealing Afghanistan’s water, attempting to bomb Afghan dams, and even participating in drug trafficking along with the Taliban.

Afghan media, even the most credible, are filled with reports about “Iranian terrorists” in Afghanistan’s cities. Recently, the anti-terror police chief, Fazlur Rahman Khadim, announced in a press conference that three Iranian men from the city of Mashhad were arrested in Herat and charged with participation in terror attacks that killed several local leaders. He also said in the same press conference that “many Taliban commanders who conduct terrorist attacks in Herat own houses in Iran.” The terrorists’ goal, he added, was to “kill Herat’s prominent figures and create insecurity.”

The Iranian consulate in Herat strongly rejected the accusations and demanded evidence of the terrorists’ citizenship.

A highly viewed but controversial story, meanwhile, claimed that an Iranian helicopter had delivered arms to the Taliban in Farah province. Several websites, including Ufuq News, Etilaat Roz newspaper, and Radio Salam Watandar, reported on the story. Salam Watandar quoted Jamileh Amini, head of the Farah Province council, as saying that the Iranian helicopter that brought arms to Taliban had stopped in Farah for two hours. She went on to say that “only hours after the Iranian helicopter landed in Farah, Taliban attacks on police stations intensified, leaving three soldiers killed and three wounded.”

Iran’s consul general in Herat, Mahmoud Afkhami Rashidi, strongly denied the claims. He described them as a “conspiracy” to sabotage Iran-Afghan relations.

In the past, Iran had been implicated at least three times in “suspicious helicopter” landings in Badghis, close to areas where the Islamic State group has a presence, though the Afghan police later rejected those claims. Interestingly, some Iran-based websites, quoting “anonymous Afghan government sources,” have claimed that “unknown helicopters” are an indication of covert activities by Americans helping and arming the Taliban.

Iran is not happy about the Salma Dam, which restricts the flow of water to Iranian provinces such as Khorasan. There have been several reports in the past accusing Iran of attempting to sabotage the dam. According to one of the reports, Afghan security forces discovered “a car with explosives and IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] uniforms.” Despite this report, Ali Osmani, Afghanistan’s minister of energy and water, said he had no knowledge of the discovery.

In July, Ghor’s provincial council accused Iran of providing the Taliban with financial and military aid to sabotage the Salma Dam, a claim Iran rejected. One month earlier, the Taliban killed several Afghan security forces in attacks on Salma Dam. The killings were indirectly attributed to Iran, which again denied the claim.

Conflict over Water

The bonds between Iran and Afghanistan are deeply rooted in their language, culture, and history. Unlike other countries in the region, Iran and Afghanistan don’t have any dispute over land, nor have they been involved in any war. Both countries, however, have a dispute over the transboundary waters of the Helmand River (Hirmand in Farsi.) It dates back to the 19th century when Afghanistan was a British protectorate and the Iran-Afghan border was defined along the main branch of the Helmand River.

Despite many ups and downs in their relationship, both countries have managed to maintain close ties. The water dispute has not been a significant issue in years with adequate precipitation. However, the conflict has resurfaced periodically in dry years, especially now that major droughts have hit the region hard. Both countries are trading accusations of taking more water than the shares defined in a 1973 treaty. In reality, both sides seem to be hyping the issue as, according to experts, there has been no accurate measurements on the Helmand since the Soviets destroyed a system set up by the US government in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the dispute is entering a new phase as the issue of sharing water has become highly politicized in both countries. President Hassan Rouhani’s July 3 speech at an international conference on “Combating Sand and Dust Storms” led to an uproar in Afghanistan. Rouhani warned that “building dams without studying environmental aspects is damaging the region” and called for international and regional cooperation to save the environment. He also said that international and regional institutions “should not be indifferent to environmental damages in Iraq and Iran caused by dam construction in neighboring countries.”

Given the sensitivities, Rouhani probably should have been more careful with his choice of words. However, his words were completely misinterpreted as a threat of retaliation should Afghanistan build more dams. Afghan officials and members of parliament harshly criticized Rouhani’s speech, and an uproar followed in social media. Demonstrations were held in some Afghan cities.

No one listened to Mohamad Reza Bahrami, Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who tried to clarify the misunderstanding.

The Times mentions similarities between Iran and Afghanistan’s neighboring provinces but misinterprets it as a new phenomenon. As the article mentions, millions of Afghans have been living in Iran on and off since the Soviet occupation and tens of thousands before 1979. The people of Afghanistan’s Herat and Iran’s Khurasan provinces have always been connected in different ways, including similarities in accent and appearance. The same is true for Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan or Central Asian states.

Many former refugees who returned to Herat or other provinces neighboring Iran started their own businesses using the skills they acquired in Iran. You can buy sweets in Herat that are made domestically, not imported, but according to the Iranian recipe. Herat markets, however, are filled with Iranian goods, and Afghanistan’s tariff system needs improvement. One such step could be imposing a tariff on an import if the same good is produced in the country.

Iran and the Taliban are both benefiting from drug trafficking, as the Times article argues. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, $28 billion worth of heroin and opium is annually trafficked from Afghanistan to Western Europe with Iran as the major transit route. Iran’s drug problem, which affects 2.8 million addicts, has become a national emergency. So, Iran has an important stake as well in fighting drug trafficking and addiction.

Impact of the Islamic State

Iran has long advocated a US troop pullback from Afghanistan, maintaining that the US presence is causing insecurity. That was before the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Now, both Iran and Russia are concerned that a reduction in US troops has created a security gap that IS has exploited. As a result, Russia and Iran have intensified their connections with the Taliban as the only force able to defeat IS. That doesn’t mean, however, that they want the Taliban to return to power.

Iran has porous borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region dominated by Sunni Muslims. Tehran has traditionally mistrusted Sunnis, especially their religious leaders, and worried about some existing separatist tendencies in this region. Thus, Iran has been very nervous about the apparent inability of the Afghan government and the unwillingness of the US to combat a possible rise of IS terrorists at Iran’s doorstep. With its striking brutality and its targeting of religious minorities and government employees in Afghanistan, IS threatens to turn Afghanistan into another Iraq or Syria.

Iran and Afghanistan are going through a very sensitive and difficult time in their history, and both need friends more than ever. Afghan instability impacts Iran, and Iran’s security challenges impact Afghanistan. The water issue and environmental challenges need to be resolved collectively. Both countries, as they have done in recent times, need to expand negotiations to resolve their conflicts and differences. Economic projects that involve both countries, such as developing the Chabahar port, can enhance security in the region. But to get off the ground, such projects also need a certain measure of security as well. Animosity between the two countries is not just a local problem but a threat to regional and global security.

Photo: Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Embassy of Afghanistan)

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).



  1. I, personally, think the article hits the bull’s eye! I particularly like the way you explain that the dialogue and discussion and disputes center around how much water each has and should
    have while there yet no accurate measure (system-wide water budget) of how much there is.

  2. This is all driven by the US and their long term strategy is clear: when they attack Iran, they need a country where they could lauch their land attack. The only candidates are Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistanis are, however, smarter than to engangle themselves in such a problem. Afghans on the other hand are gullible, undeducated with stupidly extreme views on religion and race. The fact that such rediculous accusations are brough up indicates the level of gulibility of Afghans. Unfortunately with the US strongly rooted in all aspects of Afghanistan`s life, there`s very little hope of a good ending.

  3. Best analysis I have seen on how the two countries are exploiting water to weaken each other despite the fact that they both need to solve the issue to avoid worse crises. Most reports on this issue simplify this problem by making it look like the two countries don’t know how to manage the water structure and flow but this analysis highlights other dynamics at play and the question is will all the other problems go away is the water problem is solved to each country’s satisfaction and which friends will help them overcome this difficulty?

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