June 16, 2023
10:00 am - 11:00 am


Zoom Webinar

Iran has had complicated relations with the Taliban since the group emerged in the 1990s. But recent border clashes and deepening tensions over shared water resources represent a serious escalation — and a new set of challenges — for both Tehran and Kabul. At the heart of these worsening tensions is a dispute over transboundary waters, with almost 90% of the critical Helmand River passing through Afghanistan before flowing into Iran. How would Iran respond to a complete upstream blockage by the Taliban of this crucial water source? How much leverage does Tehran have over the Taliban’s decision-making calculations? What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for resolving this dispute? And what role do policy differences in Tehran and Kabul play in shaping each country’s stance toward the other? 

To discuss these matters, the Middle East Institute is pleased to invite you to join an expert panel discussion moderated by MEI’s Iran Program Director, Alex Vatanka. 


Fatemeh Aman
Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute 

Nilofar Sakhi
Professional Lecturer, George Washington University; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; 

Andrew Watkins
Senior Expert, Afghanistan, United States Institute of Peace 

Alex Vatanka, moderator
Director, Iran Program, Middle East Institute 

Key Takeaways

  1. While Iran and the Taliban are “not friends,” they have been strategically aligned on key issues. Iran’s strategic interest in Afghanistan is motivated by ideology, as Iran is concerned with the neighboring Sunni majority, by economic expansion, as Iran wants to make Afghanistan a hub for their products to Central Asia, and by security concerns.  By contrast, Fatemeh Aman argues that Iran and the Taliban’s government can and have been strategically aligned to contain the IS-K threat. Iran, in particular, is concerned about spillover violence. Andrew Watkins cautioned that Iran’s engagement with Afghanistan predates the IS-K threat and that much of it (before August 2021) seemed to be to block U.S. interests in the region. 
  2. Climate change has severely impacted the water resources in both Iran and Afghanistan. Iran is now home to a vast, dry land; the Hamun lake is rapidly shrinking; and in the surrounding villages, the wildlife and vegetation has virtually disappeared. In Afghanistan, there is a similar trend occurring, resulting in a severe water crisis. 
  3. Recent border clashes are also due to ineffective governance on both sides. Both the Iranian and the Taliban government have no effective regulations toward water management and no general environmental protection policies. Fatemeh Aman pointed to how the effects of climate change not only exacerbate but trigger these clashes. Just this past January, Iranian officials praised the Taliban government for increasing the flow of the river in Helmand; a far cry from the situation in the spring. 
  4. While negotiations between the two countries are unlikely, Nilofar Sakhi recommended that the 1973 Treaty needs to be reviewed and revised by the UN for a resolution to come between the two countries on their shared resources. Additionally, Sakhi advised that there needs to be more 1-to-1 engagement with the Taliban as a positive aspect of peacemaking in light of the failure of regional, multilateral efforts.

Detailed Speaker Biographies

Fatemeth Aman 
Fatemeh Aman is a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. She has written on Iranian, Afghan, and broader Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, analyst, and previously as an Atlantic Council non-resident senior fellow. Her writings have appeared in numerous outlets, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute. Fatemeh has advised the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations on Iranian regional policies. She has been a frequent commentator in various media outlets, including the BBC, Voice of America (VOA), and Al Jazeera. She is the author of the Atlantic Council issue brief “Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan” and co-author of “Resolving Regional Sources of Instability.” Aman was a TV writer, producer, and anchor at VOA and, prior to that, a correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty since 1999. 

Nilofar Sakhi 
Nilofar Sakhi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. She is also a professorial lecturer of international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Previously, she was a visiting research fellow at the Keough School of Global Affairs, Notre Dame University. She also served as a course coordinator and instructor at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute through a contract with McColm & Company, where she was a director of policy and diplomacy. Sakhi taught at George Mason University and American University of Afghanistan. A former visiting fellow at National Endowment for Democracy and Columbia University as well as a former fellow at Asia Society and International Center for Tolerance Education, Sakhi has completed a wide range of research projects pertaining to the politics of peace, security, negotiations, and mediation in peacemaking processes. She served as a country director of the Open Society Foundation-Afghanistan and an executive director at the American University of Afghanistan, where she also served as a trustee. 

Andrew Watkins
Andrew Watkins is a senior expert on Afghanistan for the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Watkins has worked in and on Afghanistan in a number of roles; he joined USIP after serving as the senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, where he researched and published in-depth reports and analytical commentary on the country’s conflict and efforts to initiate a peaceful settlement. He was previously an analyst of the country’s insurgent landscape for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and he studied the Taliban as an independent researcher. As an advisor to humanitarian organizations based across the country, he traveled widely and conducted extensive field research. He also served as a liaison with local security forces for several years.

Alex Vatanka
Alex Vatanka is the founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute. He specializes in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran. He was formerly a senior analyst at Jane’s Information Group in London. Vatanka is also a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS) at Hurlburt Field and teaches as an adjunct professor at DISAS at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He has testified before the U.S. Congress and lectured widely for both governmental and commercial audiences, including the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, U.S. intelligence agencies, and a list of international corporations.

Photo by Kate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images