Iran & The Taliban Clash
On May 27, 2023, clashes erupted between Taliban and Iranian forces along the Afghanistan-Iran border. Soldiers from both sides were killed and several others were wounded, and civilians came under severe distress. The clashes continued for several hours before being brought under control by Iranian forces.
This comes as tensions have escalated after both sides accused each other of violating a water treaty. The Iranian Space Agency said its Khayyam satellite has observed that the Taliban are diverting the river’s flow. The agency said that this is denying Iran of its water share and have called on the Taliban government to stop diverting the water and to respect the water rights of Iran. Adding to the mounting tensions, the Taliban’s forces conducted a military drill near the border with Iran on Thursday
Both Iran and the Taliban deployed and used artillery in the clashes, which is the first major incident of violence between Iran and the Taliban since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. The exchange has raised tensions between the two countries and could have a significant impact on the region.
The article explores the events that led up to the clashes, the clashes themselves and an assessment of what this really means. Are these clashes more significant than are being made out?
The Context Behind The Clashes
Tehran is now taking the water crisis more seriously, with meetings having taken place and more expected in the near future. President Ebrahim Raisi ordered the ministries of foreign affairs and energy to pursue Iran’s water rights from the Helmand River. Ali Akbar Mehrabian, the spokesman for the Ministry of Energy, said that government departments would exhaust all measures to safeguard Iran’s water rights from Helmand. He also said that “some important decisions will be made in the meeting on how to solve the water problem in the east of the country.” Authorities have warned that Afghan refugees will be expelled from the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan province if the region does not receive the water supply it is entitled to under the agreement. Reports have suggested that people in Sistan may face acute water shortages in the upcoming months in the absence of water supply from Afghanistan, which will further exacerbate Iranian concerns in the troubled province already facing discontent and militancy.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid urged Iranian authorities to refrain from making “inappropriate and harmful” public statements about the water dispute between the two countries. Mujahid said Afghanistan is suffering from severe droughts, which have limited the supply of water to Iran. He called on Iran to discuss the issue bilaterally within a “proper framework”, which of course relates to the 1973 Helmand Water Treaty.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had previously said that Iran would recognize an “inclusive” Taliban government that represented all Afghans, which is clearly now only dominated by Pashtuns and Sunni Islamist hardliners. In a marked and clear shift from this open-mindedness, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran had no intentions to recognize the Taliban’s government, adding that the Taliban are “a part of” Afghanistan’s reality, but not all of it. These recent clashes seem to have cemented the idea in Tehran that the Taliban are not reliable neighbours and it goes without saying that Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are driven by its own geostrategic concerns, not by any genuine concern for human rights issues.
The Taliban who are most certainly not known for restraint or sensibility have done no good for their image as reliable neighbours or responsible governors by releasing a threatening song directed towards Iran,
The Taliban has released a song confirming the war between Afghanistan and Iran.
From the song's lyrics they are telling Ibrahim Raisi :"We are ready to liberate Tehran ,We are ready to Reform Tehran (Iranian Government)…Our Mujahideen are ready for a big bloody Revolution." pic.twitter.com/BoSyyqW28l
— Mahd (@MAHD_15_oct) May 27, 2023
The Details Behind The Clashes
On the 27th of May 2023, clashes broke out along the Afghanistan-Iran border. We can use available information on the events, such as news articles, social media posts, satellite imagery, videos, and pictures, to analyze the clashes between Iran and the Taliban.
Taliban forces reportedly engaged Iranian border guards, entered 2 kilometres inside Iranian territory, and captured an Iranian border post, which has been geolocated near the city of Zabol in the Balochistan province.
Artillery Indicates Serious Tensions
Both the Taliban and Iran have been observed employing howitzers and mortars during the clashes, which clearly shows an escalation beyond typical gunfights. The use of heavy weaponry such as howitzers and mortars allows either side to strike targets at a distance and inflict substantial damage.
BREAKING:— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) May 27, 2023
The Taliban transporting towed howitzers towards the border with Iran following the start of the border clashes 4 hours ago.
Looks like there will be an artillery duel as Iranian artillery has already been seen in action today.
Taliban confirm eruption of clashes with Iranian forces on a frontier region. The clashes follow after Iran's president publicly last week warned the Taliban over flow of water to Iran.— sayed salahuddin (@sayedsalahuddin) May 27, 2023
Video shows mortar round being fired from Afghan side. Courtesy Aziz Shah pic.twitter.com/PO17q7b0dI
Despite a complicated military setup, Iranian military protocol is far more mature than the Taliban’s, so it is expected that Iranian forces would act with greater professionalism than the Taliban forces, who nearly always act brazenly, haphazardly and demonstrate a total disregard for responsible equipment use and restraint.
Given the significant damage artillery can do, it comes as no surprise that civilians caught in the crossfire are concerned for their lives and for potential escalations. There is an audio circulating on Iranian social media where Afghan civilians are calling on the Taliban to end the conflict as Iranian forces are using heavy artillery to hit back.
Role of U.S. Equipment in the Clashes
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban acquired a significant amount of advanced U.S. weaponry, including night vision equipment. This gives the Taliban a significant advantage in certain small-scale military situations, which of course includes being able to operate effectively operate at night. The Taliban and their allies have used this equipment to carry out deadly attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is then not surprising that the Taliban feel confident taking on Iranian forces even at night and that this could be a feature of clashes between the two sides in the future, just as has been normal between the Taliban and their subsidiaries on the Pakistan front.
BREAKING:— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) May 28, 2023
New footage reveals that Taliban fighters also attacked an Iranian border post late last night after a day of intense border clashes between Iran and Afghanistan.
The Taliban were the offensive side all day & night
Where are the Shahed drones? https://t.co/gZS0xReTqW
Iranian special forces in the clashes
The Taliban have their own special forces, which make use of some of the advanced leftover U.S. equipment. To offset this advantage, the Iranians would be prepared to use their special forces, which is why the Iranians deployed their special forces along the border.
Sardar Ahmad Reza Radan, the commander of Iran’s State Security Force (SSF), resolutely expressed Iran’s determination to respond to any border violations and acts of aggression. Radan stressed the importance of holding the current rulers of Afghanistan accountable for their ill-considered actions.
Iranian special forces are better trained and supported than the Taliban’s, if not better equipped in all situations. So the use of strong statements from the SSF commander and the deployment of special forces to the border clearly demonstrate that Iran is prepared to take a more aggressive stance against the Taliban.
Force Composition & Tactical Performance
The Iranian military is more powerful than the Taliban’s. The Iranian military has a larger budget, more diverse weapons, including aircraft, and better-trained personnel. Taliban forces, on the other hand, operate more like a militia. The Iranian military has also been involved in a number of conflicts, while the Taliban has not. This gives the Iranian military a significant advantage in any long-term or full-scale conflict with the Taliban.
However, in situations where small clashes occur, the Taliban’s arsenal of newly acquired U.S. weaponry provides some significant advantages. The Taliban has acquired a number of U.S.-made weapons, including night vision equipment, drones, and armoured vehicles. These weapons give the Taliban a significant advantage in small-scale clashes.
It would be expected that the Taliban would prefer to de-escalate and limit any operations to a limited scale, so as to not invite a more concerted Iranian response. However, the Taliban is not known for thinking clearly or showing restraint.
This difference in military culture could have an influence on clashes. If the Iranian military is able to maintain its professionalism and restraint, de-escalation is more likely.
The recent clashes between Iranian forces and the Taliban have had on-ground consequences, including the evacuation of ordinary people, damage to infrastructure, closure of crossing points and casualties. The fighting has also raised tensions between Iran and the Taliban.
The clashes occurred after Iranian forces used heavy weapons against the Taliban, hitting at least three houses and a madrassa on the Afghan side of the border. Residents of Makaki, Mir Ahmad Khan, and Sher Ahmad villages in Kang district of Nimroz province left their houses due to the violence.
The Iranian Perspective, Responses & Opinions
General Heidari, the Commander of the Iran Army’s Ground Forces, asserted Iran’s control over its borders with Afghanistan but adopted a fairly placative tone given the circumstances. He focused on the importance of mutual respect and adherence to international laws as crucial for fostering positive relations with Afghanistan, aiming to portray his forces and Iran as responsible. The general conveyed Iran’s willingness to reciprocate respect from the Afghan side with equal regard and cooperation.
Two senior Iranian security officials visited the Sistan region. They used a harsher tone than General Heidari in their assessment of the situation. Blaming the Taliban for the violations, they revealed that one of their colleagues was killed and two others were injured in the clashes that took place the previous day.
Iranian politicians have commented. One issued a warning to the Taliban, cautioning against the use of violence in the ongoing clashes. They have also referred to the dispute as a ‘family dispute’ and claimed it wasn’t a ‘military dispute’.
The Iranian government-linked Tasnim News agency claimed that a border clash in Nimroz was between Iranian soldiers and drug smugglers, but the Taliban accidentally shot at the Iranian forces. This claim is likely an attempt to downplay the severity of the clash and to deflect blame away from Iran.
Iranian centrist-conservative paper Jomhouri Eslami propagate that the Taliban’s mission, on behalf of the United States, is to create instability in the region and draw Iran into a military conflict in Afghanistan. They argue that the purpose of the Doha Agreement, which led to the Taliban’s rise to power in Kabul, was to establish Afghanistan as a terrorist state and provoke a conflict with Iran. As a result, the Iranian army stationed at the eastern borders is now entangled in the challenges of war and instability. There is also a rumour circulating on Iranian social media with the claim that the Taliban are fighting Iran for money released by the U.S.
Jomhouri Eslami’s view aligns with their political affiliations and leanings; however, it also reflects Tehran’s perception of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan as a deliberate ploy to destabilize the region using the Taliban to draw Iran into a conflict in Afghanistan. The rumours about Taliban fighting on behalf of the U.S. seem to match that outlook. While there are some rudimentary geopolitical undertones in this way of thinking, it goes more in line with the propaganda of the mullah leadership in order to invoke sympathy from Iranians against the United States, as well as the Taliban.
Rather than the common abuses from Iran state-linked elements towards the U.S., Iranian journalist Abdullah Ganji offered a more interesting insight, “Today Iran and Taliban are like stone and glass. If they collide, the result is clear. The world’s scumbags have thrown war at us out of their arrogance. Rationality prevents suicide. Living as neighbors & Muslims is a reasonable strategy.” He also said, “Some people criticized Iran’s policy towards the Taliban. I asked, what should we do with this fact? Should we go to war? They said it’s not advisable. Let’s negotiate? No, don’t recognize the terrorist? Should we support Ghani? No, he is corrupt.”
Abdullah Ganji’s perspective emphasises the need for peaceful coexistence while expressing reservations about factions within Afghanistan. Ganji’s use of strong language to describe the Taliban as “scumbags” and “terrorists,” and labelling previous governments as “corrupt” reflects Iran’s negative view of available options within Afghanistan. This sentiment aligns with the evolving stance of Iranian officials, as evidenced by a shift from Supreme Leader Khamenei’s more diplomatic tone towards the Taliban to Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s recent statement.
Karim Khalili Mohaqiq, the leader of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and an ethnic Hazara, has voiced concerns about the oppression faced by Shiites and Hazaras under Taliban rule, emphasizing their lack of decision-making power in Afghanistan. The timing of his remarks is notable. Mohaqiq has a significant background in Afghan politics, having served with the mujahideen rebel forces during the 1980s and later leading the Hezb-e Wahdat in northern Afghanistan. His close ties with Iran and his Islamic Studies degree from Iran further underline his connection to the country.
Iran’s newfound friendship with the post-2021 Taliban regime is rooted in their shared anti-American stance. Both see themselves as Muslim nations fighting the tyranny of the so-called “Great Satan”. However, Iran’s support for the Taliban on this anti-Western platform was projected to be short-lived. In the 1990s, Iran and the Taliban had frosty relations and came close to war when Iranian diplomats were killed under the first Taliban regime. It is now becoming clear that a common enemy is not enough to persuade the Iranian regime and the Afghan Taliban to overlook their bilateral disputes.
The Afghan Taliban’s Perspective, Responses & Opinions
Qatar-based Taliban official, Al-Hanafi Wardak, stated before the clashes took place that the Taliban played a significant role in ensuring the survival of Iran’s regime in the region. He claimed that it was the Taliban who saved the region, including Iran, from the grip and threat of the U.S. and NATO. Wardak urged Iran to seek diplomatic means rather than resorting to threats if they wanted to benefit from the Taliban.
This perspective presented by Wardak highlights the Taliban’s portrayal of themselves as saviours of the region, including Iran, from the influence and aggression of the U.S.. It stands in contrast to the viewpoint propagated by Jomhouri Eslami, an Iranian publication, which suggests that the Taliban is working towards furthering U.S. interests in the region, either knowingly or unknowingly. These divergent views indicate a different understanding of the Taliban’s role and their relationship with Iran, with Wardak emphasizing the Taliban’s perceived role in countering U.S. influence and Jomhouri Eslami portraying them as potentially aligned with U.S. interests.
As part of the ongoing dispute over water flowing from Afghanistan into Iran, Taliban influencer General Mobeen Khan bombastically stated that the Taliban seek 20 litres of diesel from Iran for every 10 litres of water. Khan argued that a significant amount of water has flowed into Iran over the past 40 years, and therefore, Iran owes the Taliban a sum of 75 billion U.S. dollars for Afghanistan’s water resources. It is the dispute over water, which is really driving these recent clashes.
After the border clashes between Iran and the Taliban, Ahmad Massoud, the Afghan political figure, posted a verse from Rumi’s poem on Twitter. In response, Taliban official Qari Abdul Sattar Saeed tweeted back to Ahmad Massoud, using a metaphorical comparison of a jilted lover and beloved, implying that Iran might reject one-sided affection. This exchange reflects the existence of divergent opinions within Afghanistan regarding their approach towards Iran. This dialogue suggests that not all Afghan factions align with the Taliban’s perspective, validating Iran’s position that the Taliban represent a portion of Afghanistan’s decision-making process, rather than being the sole voice.
Al-Mersaad Media, a Taliban-linked outlet, published an article alleging that Iran and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) have secret ties. The article, which was titled “Rafidhis [Shias] and seditionists [ISKP] are secret friends,” claimed that Iran has provided financial and logistical support to ISKP, and that the two groups have collaborated on attacks against the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Since taking control of Kabul in a brutal military campaign in summer 2021, the Afghan Taliban have so far been unable to govern the war-torn country effectively, and have also failed to provide security for Afghan citizens as they promised. Additionally, the Taliban regime is posing a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbours, such as Tajikistan and Pakistan, both of which have experienced border clashes with Taliban fighters. It is becoming increasingly clear to Afghanistan’s neighbours that the regional security structure is insufficient to contain the Taliban’s aggression or to encourage them to transform themselves from an insurgent militia into a political movement that can represent and fulfil the true aspirations of all Afghans.
Blaming America & Israel
Interestingly, Mustafa Hamid, the father-in-law of Iran-based Al-Qaeda leader Saif al-Adl, placed the blame on the U.S. and Israel – whose media also picked up on the clashes – for the recent skirmishes between Iran and the Taliban. Hamid believes that a direct line of communication between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Khamenei, and the Taliban’s Hebatullah Akhundzada could potentially be the key to peacefully resolving the water crisis. Hamid also points out that Iran has been the primary source of economic support for the Taliban regime since the U.S. military withdrawal, surpassing any other external assistance received during this period.
In light of the above, it is anticipated that similar clashes between the Taliban and Iran may recur in the future. However, an all-out war between Iran and the Taliban may be avoided if both sides maintain a cautious approach. The Taliban’s jihadist ideology, untameable aggression and inability to govern or even fully control Afghanistan, coupled and the escalating water crises in Asia, do present a complex regional scenario replete with worrying circumstances.
While there may have been initial indications of cooperation between the regimes of Iran and the Taliban that reflected government policy, true stability remains difficult. The fundamental ideological differences between the Shia-led Iran and the Sunni-dominated Taliban overrule any capacity for commonalities through religion to improve chances for peace. Despite their shared animosity towards the West, Israel, and their involvement in terror activities against Pakistan, the two sides cannot find common ground. The Iranian regime is more organized and structured, as are its military forces, while the Taliban forces exhibit trigger-happy and unruly behaviour, which increases the chances of clashes, as we have also seen on the Pakistan border.
ISIS/Daesh and its Khorasan affiliate, ISKP, pose significant threats to both Iran and Afghanistan, further exacerbating the challenges in internal security and counterterrorism within these nations. It also demonstrates the need or perhaps the possibility of cooperation between the two sides. even though the Taliban suspect Iranian involvement in ISKP activities in Afghanistan. The presence of ISKP is also another reason the Taliban are reluctantly resigned to cooperation with former Western adversaries, such as the United States. and the United Kingdom.
Recent events highlight the gravity of the situation, with a devastating attack occurring in Iran and a tragic bombing targeting a funeral in Afghanistan. While the Taliban have achieved some victories against ISKP, they have been unable to fully eradicate the group and its attacks. This ongoing presence of low-intensity Daesh activity further perpetuates the negative impact on all countries connected to or neighbouring Afghanistan, contributing to a complex regional militant ecosystem. An example of this is the recent assassination of a Taliban governor for Badakhshan by ISKP and the subsequent mosque bombing during his funeral, emphasising the persistent threat posed by the group.
In December 2022, it was projected that 2023 would prove to be difficult for Afghanistan as well as for all its neighbours, particularly in the realm of security. The threats faced by Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries were projected to intensify since the Taliban’s takeover. The recent incidents of Taliban militants clashing with Iranian forces continue to affirm that trajectory, which was earlier validated by Taliban skirmishes with Pakistan in Chaman/Spin Boldak twice in December 2022, and with Tajikistan at Sher Khan Bandar in May 2022.
It has become painfully evident that the Taliban’s promises should not have been trusted, and all regional countries should have taken bolder steps to ensure their security prior to the U.S. withdrawal in 2021. The Taliban’s regime has failed to set up an effective administration, and is also unable – or unwilling – to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven for terrorists, and to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts. In fact, since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, all of these transnational security problems have metastasised.
Pakistan, a country facing significant terrorism issues from the Taliban and its affiliated groups, as well as proxy networks associated with the Iranian regime, will be closely monitoring this situation. Islamabad may quietly view the clashes between the Taliban and Iran as a positive development, at least in some ways, as it diverts the attention of the Taliban, a major threat, towards another rival of Pakistan. This situation provides a temporary reprieve to Pakistan from direct confrontations with the Taliban. Pakistan may also see this as an opportunity to address internal security concerns and focus on strengthening its own defences against both the Taliban and other militant groups but must do so seriously.
It may also be argued that Tehran has failed to learn from the challenges Pakistan faced, despite sharing similar threats and threat vectors and not exercising due caution. Pakistani forces are routinely engaged in clashes with fighters affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban. In Pakistani forces’ recent counterterror operations, TTP cells and militant groups were only found to have Afghan militants operating among them, but Pakistan encountered resistance and hostility directly from the Taliban whenever it acted kinetically against Taliban elements inside Pakistan, especially in its western tribal areas proximate to the Afghan border. In many clashes and engagements, the Taliban and their affiliates have used leftover U.S. weaponry, which has also been seen in their recent clashes with Iranian forces.
The clashes between Iran and the Taliban present an opportunity for countries in the region, such as Pakistan and Tajikistan, to assess the situation and gain valuable insights. By closely examining the equipment, organization, deployment and tactical frameworks employed by the Taliban during these confrontations, other nations facing threats from the Taliban or their affiliates can improve their understanding of the operational dynamics and tactical possibilities in such circumstances. This assessment offers an opportunity for academics, specialists and researchers to enhance their knowledge of the Taliban’s capabilities, strategies, and potential threats that may arise in similar situations with other countries bordering Afghanistan.
Wartorn for decades, Afghanistan finds itself at a critical geopolitical crossroads where every development or event can potentially impact the interests of many other countries. This includes major players such as China, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian nations, and Russia. Afghanistan essentially serves as a ‘black hole’ which appears to forcibly absorb many other countries, with their own diverse motivations and interests, into the landlocked Asian country. Countries around the world, especially those that remain apprehensive of religious extremism and organised transnational terrorism, will be paying close attention to the developments in and around Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.