Iran’s Achilles Heel: Water Security and Afghanistan
The Iran-Afghanistan relationship has changed dramatically in the course of the last 20 years. In 1998, Taliban militants captured the Northern Alliance held city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and in the process killed Iranian diplomats who were in the city at the time. The incident resulted in a diplomatic crisis, as Iran seemed close to deploying the 70,000 military personnel stationed along the Afghanistan-Iran border, and the Taliban threatening to retaliate to any Iranian military deployment by targeting Iranian cities.
Since 1998, the relationship between Iran and the Afghan Taliban has changed significantly, as Iran has fostered much closer links with the Taliban which re-emerged during the course of US led combat operations. People within Afghanistan have accused the Iranians of supporting the Taliban covertly[i] and in some cases, have accredited Iranian support as dominant factor in explaining recent Taliban gains.[ii] However, despite the shift in relationship, one of the reasons which brought the Iranians so close to military action on such a scale have remained the same. During the diplomatic tensions which followed the killing of the Iranian diplomats, Iran was also going through one of the worse droughts it had witnessed in decades. This drought, which began in 1998 and ended in 2001 was exasperated by the Talibanâs closure of the Kajaki Dam, denying vital water to Iranian farmland across the border. Water security was therefore a prevalent issue for the Iranians in the 1998 clash of wills between Iran and the Taliban, and continues to be able to potentially undermine Iranâs pursuit of influence in the region. This piece will aim to place the importance of water security between Afghanistan and Iran within the broader themes which have characterised the Afghan-Iranian relationship. In doing so, this piece will divide itself into 2 sections. The first will explain the water security situation which exists between Afghanistan and Iran today, and the second will explain what Iran has done to try and reduce their vulnerability at the hands of Afghanistan in respect to the countries control over Iranâs water supply.
The Thorn in Iranâs Side: Water Security
The Talibanâs closure of the sluices which provided water to Iran at the Kajaki Dam was by no means the sole explanation of the 1998 drought witnessed in Iran, as 1998 also recorded to lowest rainfall in Iran since 1969. However, it highlighted the way in which a relatively powerful country such as Iran was vulnerable to a comparatively weaker (in military terms) Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan. In this instance, the utility of force, or the threat of it (through the Iranian deployment of 70,000 personnel along the Afghanistan-Iran border) had little impact in the war of words with the Taliban. The Taliban appeared confident in their ability to ride out any Iranian deployment in Afghanistan, whilst threatening to conduct their own operations in Iran.[iii] Realising that the threat of force had been of little value to Iran, and that diplomatic overtures to the Taliban seemed to be a futile avenue of approach after the Talibanâs decision to kill the Iranian embassy staff, Iran was forced to appeal to the UN for action.[iv] The whole episode showed how something as seemingly simple as shutting off sluices in Helmand Province could force the Iranians to cede the initiative to the neighbouring Taliban regime.
The drought of 1998 eventually gave way in 2001, however in respects to water security, time is not on Iranâs side. A study produced by Dr M. Molanejad and Dr A. Ranjbar[v] highlighted that climate change is expected to increase the chances of years in which rainfall is lower than average, thus increasing the chances that a group such as the Taliban free from Iranian influence, or a hostile Afghan government would have to shut off water supply at a time of low rainfall. To further compound matters, Afghanistanâs National Unity Government regards the construction of dams as a vital aspect of development in Southern and Western Afghanistan, which suggests dam construction is only going to gain momentum as Afghanistan rebuilds itself. The Afghan governmentâs approach to dams seems justified, in that 80% of its electricity is imported, and hydroelectricity would reduce Afghanistanâs reliance on its neighbours and represent an important step towards reconstruction. Not only would the increased irrigation which would come with dam construction improve agricultural prosperity, it would also serve as an important step in gaining the confidence of the population of the sparsely populated western provinces.
Iran is currently concerned with the construction of a number of new dams along waterways which lead to Iran and the impact that these will have on Iranâs water security. Notable projects such as the Khamal Khan Dam in Nuristan Province, the Indian-funded Salma Dam in Herat Province and the Baksh-Abad Hydroelectric Station being developed by the Italian Hydro ARDH company and the Pakistani state-owned Nespak have presented a challenge to Iran. On the surface, Iranâs worries may be soothed by the fact that a water sharing treaty was signed between Afghanistan and Iran in 1973,[vi] but both states have little faith in the enforcement of this treaty, and thus its impact has been relatively minimal in providing oversight.
Iranian President Rouhani expressed his concerns regarding Afghan dam construction at a conference covering sandstorms and environmental issues in Tehran, but his views were met by widespread protest in Afghanistan. The PMâs comments sparked a protest in Kabul, organised by the Afghan National Cooperation Party, as well as another in Nimroz Province[vii], close to the Iranian border. The nature of the protests suggests that the issue of the construction of dams and irrigation is not as simple as it may seem. Afghan politicians see the construction of dams as an important part of development, and see Iranian protests against additional dams as an infringement upon Afghan sovereignty. Iran on the other hand sees the increased construction of dams in correlation with expected increases in extreme weather as a grave threat to its security. Therefore, the issue of dams is not merely a question of economics and agriculture, there are broader political concerns at stake. Water security is a significant thorn in Iranâs side, and it comes with the potential to derail their attempt to expand their influence as an economic and political model across the Middle East and Central Asia.
How is Iran Protecting Their Interests?
In Afghanistan, Iran sees the need to protect their broader interests as well an ensuring that they retain some form of control over the issue of water security. In order to do so, the Iranianâs have fostered closer links with parts of the Taliban through the Iranian National Guard. The extent of the support for the Taliban is difficult to gauge, as the loose command structure of the group means that Iran is not necessarily supporting the entire Taliban, just parts. The Iranian government also denies that it has provided covert support for the Taliban and cites its cooperation with the NUG over the Chabahar Port Project as evidence to the contrary of these claims. However a recent article by the New York Times which utilises the opinions of multiple Afghan officials claims that Iran has given the Taliban sanctuary, weapons, vehicles and has even gathered recruits from the sizeable Afghan refugee population in Iran.[viii] Regardless of Iranâs denial of support for the Taliban, security officials and analysts continue to point towards incidents such as one in which weapons with Iranian markings were seized from militants in Afghanistan[ix] as evidence that Iranâs support is happening under their noses. Whilst seizing weapons with Iranian markings is not concrete evidence of Iranian support (it is likely that Iran would not want to advertise its support for the Taliban in such a blatant way,) the volume of claims and incidents related to accused Iranian support does seem to give the claims some gravitas.
Support for the Taliban is a way for Iran to have a say in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, despite their previous differences. To complicate matters, the Iranian reasoning for communicating with the Taliban (which they do not deny) is logical. Iran is concerned about the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan in the form of IS - Khorosan Province (ISKP,) particularly after the June 2017 ISIS attacks on the Iranian Parliament. Within these broader concerns, Iran has also used its support for the Taliban as a way of securing their Afghan water supply. For example, in 2011, a Taliban commander named Mullah Dadullah was allegedly offered $50,000 to sabotage the Kamal Khan Dam. Dadullah was stopped by security forces, but during his ensuing questioning Dadullah claimed that he was trained by Iranian instructors[x].
Cases such as Dadullah are not isolated incidents, another Taliban commander named as Maulawi Hamid claimed that he received money and weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to destroy Dam projects in Farah Province[xi]. Hamidâs case - if true - represents a potential regional political flashpoint involving Pakistan as well, highlighting the fact that Iranâs concerns over water security can not simply be isolated from regional issues. According to Afghanistan Todayâs report on the incident, Pakistan sacked the Taliban commander after hearing that he had received support from the Taliban, which hints at a Pakistani-Iranian struggle for influence within the Taliban group. More recently, another chapter in the potential Iran-Pakistan rivalry was told by the death of the Taliban commander Mullah Mansour in May 2016. Mansour was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan whilst returning from a visit to Iran. Multiple individuals within the Taliban have accused Pakistan of killing Mansour, as he was drifting away from Pakistani influence and into the arms of the Iranians. On the surface, it seems that the killing of Mansour was not only a message from Pakistan to the Taliban to stay on side. The incidentâs proximity to Mansourâs visit to Iran may be viewed as a warning to Iran to respect Pakistani interests within the Taliban. Relations between Iran and Pakistan remain cordial, however Iranian-Indian projects such as the Chabahar Dam Project which would provide India with a trade route to Afghanistan have the potential to further increase competition over Taliban influence.
Iranâs support for the Taliban is not solely dictated by their concerns over water security, as regional political goals also dominate their reasoning. Iran appears to be trying to reduce Pakistanâs dominance as a supporter of the Taliban, as Iran does not want a strong insurgency on their border if they are influenced by another state. However, within these larger political goals and grand strategy, Iran is quietly trying to reduce its vulnerability at the hands of the controllers of the Afghan water supply. Iran has recognised that their Achilleâs heel is not going to fix itself, as experts have highlighted that climate change is only going to cause more extremes of weather in Iranâs region. It is also unlikely that this problem will fix itself, as the potential economic, social and agricultural benefits of continuing the construction of dams across Western Afghanistan acts as a powerful incentive for the Afghan NUG. Therefore, rather than bargain from a position of weakness, in which each drought would only highlight Iranâs position, Iranâs support for the Taliban, amongst other factors, also acts as an Iranian attempt to address one of their biggest weaknesses before it is too late.