Iran’s ambassador to Kabul has openly admitted that Tehran is in contact with the ultraconservative Islamist Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
However, he denied that the Taliban’s recent attack on Farah Province near the Iran-Afghan border was made in coordination with Tehran.
“We have already explicitly said we are in touch with the Taliban, but we never established formal relations with the group to avoid legitimizing it,” Mohammad Reza Bahrami told the government’s official news agency (IRNA) on May 21.
Bahrami maintained that Tehran continues its contact with the Taliban to encourage it to join peace talks with the Afghan government.
“Not only Iran, but all other countries in the region are in contact with the Taliban, urging them to join the peace talks with Kabul,” Bahrami said.
For years, Tehran counted the Taliban as one of the most dangerous threats to its security, but its position against the group has changed in recent years.
Earlier, Radio Free Europe/radio Liberty cited an informed source as saying, “Tehran’s clandestine cooperation with the Taliban, under Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s leadership, has expanded since the so-called Islamic State (IS) emerged as a significant source of threat for the region’s stability in early 2015.”
Later, in 2016, it was widely reported that Mansour had visited Tehran, but Iran’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the news as unfounded.
Tehran’s ambassador to Kabul also denied any connection between the Taliban’s recent assault on Farah and the ongoing Iran-Afghan dispute over water resources.
“Iran and Farah have 300 kilometers (roughly 187 miles) of common border; therefore, any sort of destabilization or insecurity in Farah has an impact on Iran,” he said.
Without directly referring to the possibility of U.S. forces being present in Farah, Bahrami said, “Naturally, any instability in Farah Province will lead to the deployment of foreign troops there, which is not in the interest of Iran.”
Reacting to claims that the recent Taliban attack on Farah city was related to the “war over water,” he said, “Iran and Afghanistan have no issues that they cannot negotiate," noting, “According to the agreements, all the issues in the two countries' relations in the political, security, social, cultural, and economic fields are negotiable, and there is a will on both sides to discuss problems or disagreements.”
Bahrami went on to stress that a large part of the cement and concrete needed to build Afghanistan’s Salma Dam was provided by Iran, and the contractor working on the dam project in cooperation with an Indian company is Iranian.
"If Iran really had opposed construction of the Salma Dam, it would not have allowed the cement to be delivered to Afghanistan,” he said.
Last week, hundreds of Taliban fighters stormed the city of Farah, but they soon abandoned efforts to capture the city after a counterattack by Afghanistan’s regular ground forces, supported by U.S. air power.
Immediately after the attack, Afghan Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami maintained that clashes in Farah were the outcome of the “war over water” between Iran and Afghanistan.
“The growing violence and recent war in western Farah Province have links with issues surrounding the management of water resources,” Tariq Shah Bahrami said on May 17. He made the remarks during a visit to Farah Province accompanied by senior security officials including the commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission General John Nicholson, local news outlets reported.
Without further elaboration, the defense minister added that around 20 terrorist groups are operating in Afghanistan and are being supported by neighboring countries.
“Following the construction of dams in Afghanistan, including the Salma Dam in Farah, attacks on western parts of the country have significantly increased while regional countries are attempting to destabilize the province and spread insecurity in order to achieve their own goals,” he said.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Afghan Service, deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s Senate, Asef Sadiqi, said, “Tehran is against Kabul’s control over the waters flowing from Afghanistan toward Iran and does its best to disturb it through all possible ways. Therefore, Iran has been involved in creating recent instability and insecurity in several Afghan provinces.”
The Salma Dam and its hydropower station were built on the Hari Rud (Heray Rud or River of Heart) and inaugurated in 2016.
Hari Rud flows 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) from the mountains of central Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, where it disappears in the Kara-Kum desert forming the Tejend oasis.
In western Afghanistan, the river flows to the south of Herat, then turns northwest, then north, forming the northern part of the border between Afghanistan and Iran.
Afghanistan and Iran have a long history of dispute over their water shares from Hari Rud and the Helmand River.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has admitted that Kabul and Tehran have not yet reached an agreement on the two rivers.
Meanwhile, without any elaboration, he had cautioned that if the negotiations failed Iran would be left with no option other than “retaliating.”
Speaking at the International Conference on Combating Sand and Dust Storms in Tehran last July, President Hassan Rouhani said one cannot stand idly by while the environment deteriorates and noted that the construction of several dams in Afghanistan has had negative impacts on Iran.
Rouhani’s comments elicited criticism in Afghanistan to the extent that Afghan Water and Energy Minister Ali Ahmad Osman accused Tehran of “unhealthy management of water resources” and creating water-shortage environmental problems for Iran of Afghanistan.