At least three people were killed and several others injured after clashes broke out along the Iranian-Afghan border on Saturday night, according to Iranian state media and an Afghan official, escalating tensions between the two countries amid a heated dispute over water rights in recent weeks.
At least two Iranian border guards were killed in the fighting, which began around noon on Saturday and ended after six hours along the southwestern border of Afghanistan, according to Iranian state media and Afghan news reports. One soldier with the Taliban administration in Afghanistan was also killed, the Afghan Ministry of Interior said.
Officials from both countries accused the other of initiating the clashes. An official in southeastern Iran said that calm had returned to the border area on Saturday night, according to Iranian state media.
The skirmishes come amid rising political tension between the two countries over the flow of water from the Helmand River in Afghanistan into eastern Iran, a region that has been plagued by drought. The mouth of the river is along the border in southwestern Afghanistan and southeastern Iran, where the clashes took place.
In recent weeks, Iranian officials have accused the Taliban administration of violating a decades-old treaty between the two countries by restricting the flow of water out of Afghanistan, an accusation Taliban officials have denied.
The issue of water has been a flashpoint between Afghanistan and Iran for centuries. The two countries are bound by the Helmand River, the longest river in Afghanistan, which flows from the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range and feeds into wetlands along the country’s border with Iran. The river is a critical source of drinking water, as well as agriculture and fishing, in southern Afghanistan and southeastern Iran.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Afghan governments constructed two major dams along the Helmand River, giving Afghanistan the power to cut off the flow of water into Iran and alarming Iranian officials as the country experienced periods of intense drought. Though the two countries signed a treaty on sharing water resources in 1973, it was never ratified, and the flow of water from the river has remained a heated point of contention ever since.
Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the Iranian authorities have maintained relations with Afghanistan, and in February, Iran became one of a few foreign governments to accept Taliban-appointed diplomats in their country.
But this month, President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran warned the Taliban administration not to violate the terms of the 1973 water treaty and urged the Afghan government to allow Iranian hydrologists to check the river’s water levels.
“We will not allow the rights of our people to be violated,” Mr. Raisi said.
On Saturday morning, the Taliban administration’s minister of foreign affairs, Amir Khan Muttaqi, met with Iran’s top diplomat in Afghanistan, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, to discuss the water dispute, among other issues, according to Hafiz Zia Ahmad, the deputy spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
After the clashes broke out along the border, the Afghan Ministry of National Defense called for the two countries to reach a negotiated settlement.
“Making excuses for war and negative actions is not in the interest of any of the parties,” the ministry said in a statement.
Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting.