Remarkable as it may sound, it looks as if a border skirmish this week between Iranian and Afghan border guards, which involved at least three deaths, was about water. This is not the first border clash as tensions grow over scarce water resources between Iran and the 20-month old Taliban regime, although it is the first that is known to have cost lives.
Earlier this month, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi raised the issue of the 1973 water treaty, designed to share access to water from the Helmand river, which flows across the border. He claimed that the Taliban were violating terms of the agreement, under which Afghanistan is committed to allowing 850 million cubic metres of water a year to flow into Iran. New dams to generate electricity and irrigate agriculture have worsened the crisis.
In what Iran described as a heavy exchange of fire, they have accused Afghan border guards of shooting first. At least two died on the Iranian side, as well as one Afghan guard, although details are scarce, and foreign access to reporting in Afghanistan is very limited. Now armed with American weapons they seized by the truckload when they stormed into power, the Taliban are a potent force for Iran to take on.
The Taliban say they want good relations with their neighbours, and want the dispute resolved through diplomatic channels. But complicating this is the fact that Taliban control of Afghanistan is not legally recognised. Iran is among several countries who have opened de facto embassies in Kabul (allowing Taliban envoys to take over the Afghan embassy in Tehran) while not formally recognising the regime. Any international mediation in settling the water dispute would involve accepting that the Taliban have the authority to discuss Afghanistan’s existing treaties.
Iran is not in a hurry to recognise the Taliban.