The Taliban threatens to ‘conquer Iran’ in a dispute over shared river

Border disputes with Iran began almost as soon as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
iran taliban
In this photo taken on February 18, 2022 a Taliban fighter stands guard at the entrance gate of Afghan-Iran border crossing bridge in Zaranj. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

With American forces fully out of Afghanistan and the elected government ousted, the Taliban has to do the important and sometimes boring job of actually governing the country. This means it has to handle things like foreign relations and watershed management. It’s covering both jobs the only way the Taliban knows how: with violence. 

The Helmand River is the longest river in Afghanistan, some 790 miles long, flowing from its source in the Hindu Kush, all the way across the country and into neighboring Iran. Back when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was in charge of Iran and Mohammad Daoud Khan was in power in Afghanistan, the issue of water rights was easily settled between the two mostly secular countries. 

Fast-forward to 50 years later, and much has changed. The Shah’s regime has changed to the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran and in Afghanistan, the Sunni-based Taliban have claimed power, making any territorial or material dispute way more complicated than it has to be. What began as a border dispute over water could soon erupt into holy war. 

Border disputes between the two fundamentalist governments began almost as soon as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. None have broken out into full-scale conflict, but an incident on the border where the Helmand River flows into Iran resulted in three people dead

No one in the West is entirely sure how the disagreement began, but in May 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi released a video warning the Taliban government to respect the water rights of the Iranians who depend on the Helmand River. 

“I warn the rulers of Afghanistan to immediately give the people their water rights,” he said. “Take my words seriously now or don’t complain later.”

The Taliban responded with a video of their own, where a Taliban fighter fills a gasoline can with water and jokingly begs the Iranian President for mercy. 

“Mr. Raisi, take this water barrel and don’t attack; we’re terrified,” the fighter says in the video. 

Neither Iranian state media nor the Taliban has clarified what started the shooting, but Iran says drug traffickers connected to the Taliban shot at officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps first. The Taliban says the IRGC began shooting at their people first. 

Members of the Associated Press say it boils down to a dispute over water rights, specifically, that the Taliban started violating Afghanistan’s 50-year-old treaty with Iran, giving the Islamic Republic only four percent of the water in the terms of the agreement. Both Iran and Afghanistan are suffering from widespread drought, escalating the water crisis – and tensions along the border. 

The most recent clash was the first incident where shooting began. Senior Taliban commander Abdulhamid Khorasani, also known as Nasser Badri, released a video claiming that the Taliban will fight Iran with more passion than they did the United States.

“We will conquer Iran soon if Taliban’s leaders give the green light for jihad,” Badri said in a video released on Twitter. This means that a water dispute could lead to the Taliban going to war with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military unit Iran uses to keep fighting outside of Iranian borders. It’s a conflict the rest of the world will probably be happy to sit and watch.