Closing Arguments: Iran-Afghan Water Tensions, Iran-Hezbollah Tanker Traffic

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Afghanistan-Iran: Water's Role in Shaping Relations Regulating the flow of the Helmand River looks set to play a critical role in shaping relations between the pending Taliban-led government and Iran. Competing narratives out of Afghanistan regarding the release of water by the Taliban from the Kamal Khan Dam, which controls flows from the Helmand River into Iran, are already in play. Initial reports that the Taliban had opened the Kamal Khan Dam at the insistence of Iran were immediately contradicted by a statement from a regional Taliban leader rejecting this claim. Like most nations located in arid climates with shared water resources, Iran and Afghanistan have historically struggled with the issue of water allocation from the flow of the Helmand River, which originates in the mountains north and west of Kabul before terminating in a series of lakes and wetlands along the Iran-Afghan border. A 1973 treaty governs the flow of water from Afghanistan into Iran. However, poor management practices on the part of Afghanistan, exacerbated by nearly 40 years of instability and incessant conflict, resulted in Iran accessing more water than it was permitted by the treaty. Over time, this excess water has become the “norm” that defines Iranian water usage policies for the eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Efforts by the former Afghan government to better regulate the flow of water from the Helmand River into Iran, along the lines permitted by the 1973 treaty, created a water crisis for Iran as the excessive flows it had become accustomed to were cut back. The mechanism for this new level of water management was the Kamal Khan Dam, only recently completed in March 2021 despite construction having started in 1971. Iran views the Kamal Khan Dam as an existential threat to its water security. Indeed, the Afghan government blamed Iran for secretly supporting Taliban attacks against the dam to prevent its completion, which the Iranian government denies. On inaugurating the Kamal Khan Dam, then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proclaimed the end of “free water” for Iran. “If you ask for water, you must give oil,” Ghani declared. The Taliban must now balance the imperative to improve relations with Iran with Afghanistan's own development needs. The extent to which Ghani’s “oil-for-water” policy remains in place is yet to be seen. Lebanon: Hezbollah Extends Its Sovereignty to Iranian Tankers As Iranian fuel tankers set a course for Lebanese ports, both Iran and Hezbollah have issued warnings to anyone seeking to interfere with the ships’ progress. One Iranian tanker has entered the Mediterranean Sea from the Suez Canal, and is heading toward the coast of Lebanon. Two other Iranian tankers are slated to depart Iran for Lebanon. The delivery of refined oil products from Iran has been coordinated with Hezbollah, rather than the Lebanese caretaker government, to alleviate a critical fuel shortage that has gripped Lebanon amid its ongoing economic crisis. Concerns over foreign interference in the passage of Iranian shipping in the Mediterranean Sea are grounded in Iran and Israel's ongoing shadow tanker war. As just one example, Iranian cargo vessel the Shahr e Kord was damaged earlier this year after an explosive device attached to its hull detonated. In 2019, at the instigation of the US, UK forces boarded and seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar. By warning both the US and Israel in advance of the tanker’s arrival off the coast of Lebanon, Iran could be seeking to head off an escalation of tensions over an attempt to seize or attack the tanker. The warning by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah against interfering with the Iranian tanker, however, does more than simply echo that of Iran. In the past, presumed Iranian retaliation against any attack on its shipping has largely taken the form of in-kind actions, including the seizure of foreign shipping and like-for-like attacks against Israeli-linked vessels. Nasrallah raised the stakes considerably, however, when he declared that the Iranian tankers would be considered Lebanese territory from the moment they set sail from Iran. This is not an idle threat. Since the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has maintained a deterrence policy that mandates immediate retaliation against any violation of Lebanese territorial sovereignty. As such, any attack on an Iranian tanker would be seen as an attack on Hezbollah, possibly triggering a wider conflict. The degree to which the Hezbollah threat serves as a deterrent to any effort to impede the Iranian fuel shipments will be tested in the days to come, as the Iranian tankers close in on Lebanon’s coastal waters.

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