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What caused the deadly border clashes between Afghanistan and Iran? What happens next?

Last week, deadly clashes erupted between Afghan and Iranian guards at their border, raising fears of a new conflict.

Both sides have accused each other of starting the shooting that killed at least two Iranian guards and one Afghan guard. However, they have issued measured statements aimed at de-escalating the situation.

Following the border violence, Iranian authorities closed the Milak-Zaranj border post, a major trade crossing, and not the site of the clash, until further notice, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported.

Despite a treaty in force since 1973 on the division of the waters of the Helmand River, the two parties have argued for decades. The river flows from Afghanistan into eastern Iran.

What sparked the fight?

The reasons for the deadly clashes are still unknown, but the shooting at the border post between the Afghan province of Nimroz and the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan comes as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi earlier this month accused the rulers of Taliban to restrict the flow of water to the eastern regions of Iran. in violation of the 1973 treaty.

“We will not allow the rights of our people to be violated,” Raisi said on May 18.

The Taliban, who have denied the accusation, called to “resolve the problem” in accordance with the 50-year-old treaty. The Taliban, which has remained diplomatically isolated since coming to power in August 2021, said it wanted “good relations” with Tehran.

According to Sina Toossi, a non-resident senior fellow at the US-based think tank Center for International Policy (CIP), there is a “lack of clear demarcation and understanding of border boundaries and rules” on both sides.

Iranian officials have repeatedly blamed the taliban for their contempt of international law and border protocols since it took over Afghanistan two years ago. Clashes have broken out on multiple occasions, but have rarely resulted in casualties and have often been blamed on “misunderstood”.

A day before the border clashes, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian called on Afghan rulers to “follow the legal framework” to resolve the water dispute.

“In recent years, the rulers of Afghanistan, including the Taliban, have not adhered to this treaty,” CIP’s Toossi told Al Jazeera, adding that Kabul has delivered only “a fraction of the agreed amount.”

“It has been exacerbated by worsening dry conditions in Iran, making the water problem increasingly critical,” he said.

The Taliban issued a statement saying they did not want to “fight with their neighbours”.

The flag of Iran is displayed at the Milak border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan (File: Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters)

What is the water dispute between Afghanistan and Iran?

The Helmand River, which is more than 1,000 km (621 miles) long and flows across the border, is being dammed on the Afghan side to generate electricity and irrigate farmland.

Drought has been a problem in Iran for about 30 years, which has worsened in the past decade, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Iran Meteorological Organization says about 97 percent of the country is now facing some level of drought.

According to the Helmand Water Treaty signed by Afghanistan and Iran in 1973, Kabul should annually share 850 million cubic meters of Helmand water with Tehran.

It also calls on both sides to address their differences through diplomatic channels and, if that fails, through an advisory board headed by a mutually chosen arbitrator.

Tehran has accused Afghanistan of not adhering to the treaty on several occasions and has opposite Kabul’s decision to dam the river.

Afghan border with Iran
A watchtower between Afghanistan and Iran at the border crossing in Milak, Iran (File: Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters)

How have both countries reacted to the clashes?

The Taliban leadership has called for these issues to be resolved “through diplomatic channels.”

“We do not want relations with our neighboring countries to deteriorate. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is never in favor of escalation,” Hafiz Zia Ahmad, deputy spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told the Saudi Arabian News on Monday.

Meanwhile, Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, head of the South Asia division of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, urged both countries to avoid conflict as it would be detrimental to them.

“If the people and elites of the two countries are smart, any kind of conflict is a strategic disadvantage for both,” he tweeted.

Analyst Toossi believes that the border clashes have led both parties to de-escalate the situation and “reaffirm their commitment to dialogue and cooperation.”

He said there are signs that Iran is open to dialogue, as the Taliban’s acting foreign minister met with an Iranian envoy to discuss water rights to the Helmand river on the day of the confrontation.

Iran Afghanistan Map
Hirmand County along the Iran-Afghanistan border (Al Jazeera)

Where is the relationship between Afghanistan and Iran?

As Kabul and Tehran are “trying to balance their interests and concerns”, according to Toossi, their relationship remains in a state of “uncertainty”.

“It is not clear if the Taliban have withdrawn their fighters from the border or if they will respect the agreement in the future,” he said after videos showed large numbers of Taliban fighters approaching the border with Iran last week.

He said the water dispute between the two countries is likely to remain a “contentious issue” as they face increasing water scarcity and demand.

Furthermore, although Iran has maintained a dialogue with the Taliban, it has not officially recognized them as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

The Shiite-majority country has called for the formation of an inclusive government representing all ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan.

“Iran has expressed its concern for the safety and well-being of the Afghan people, especially the Hazara Shiite minority, who have faced persecution and violence from the Taliban in the past,” Toossi said.

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