Water crisis fueling tension between Iran and its neighbors

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Feb 28, 2018
Water crisis fueling tension between Iran and its neighbors

Iran’s growing water shortage and other environmental challenges have recently reached crisis point. Water scarcity and air pollution have not only triggered sociopolitical and security problems inside the country but have also caused tension between Iran and its neighbors. With the collapse of ISIS, Iran and Turkey are stepping up competition for the control of water in the region, while a potential effort by Tehran to severely restrict the flow of water into Iraq could create more problems for the war-torn country. Moreover, Tehran and Kabul have publicly sparred over water issues recently, as Afghan officials accuse the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) of arming and training Taliban groups to sabotage dam and power projects in western and southern Afghanistan. Paradoxically, Iran wants to restrict its export of water to neighboring countries, whereas it criticizes Afghanistan for building hydroelectric dams that reduces the free flow of Helmand River water into Iran’s water-hungry eastern provinces.

Iranian leaders blame neighboring countries’ water management policies, the presence of US forces in the region, and climate changes for Iran’s growing environmental problems, yet they largely overlook corruption and mismanagement in the country as well as wrong government policies responsible for the deteriorating crisis across the country, particularly in underdeveloped eastern and western provinces. Iran’s support for militant and extremist groups in the region has also contributed to the worsening environmental issues.

Cooperation or confrontation?

On February 27, the top military aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that worsening water scarcity in the region could cause tension between Iran and its neighbors in the near future, emphasizing that Tehran prefers to resolve disputes over water with its neighbors through diplomacy rather than military confrontation. Addressing a national conference on water diplomacy in Tehran, Major General Rahim Safavi called for “open talks on water management” with Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and other countries sharing water resources with Iran. “We do not want the use of military and hard power on this issue. We should use soft power and diplomacy to foster a common engagement,” he said during his speech, which may be read by some regional countries as a veiled threat. He pointed out that Iran shares water resources with 12 neighboring countries and stressed that, as water problems in the region are getting worse, there will be either more cooperation or confrontation between Iran and its neighbors in the future.

According to Safavi, about two-third of Iran’s total 10.2 billion cubic meters exiting the country go to Iraq. The former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) also cautioned that the presence of “foreigners” in neighboring countries – a reference to the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan – could further complicate Iran’s engagement with neighboring countries over water arrangement issues.

Regional tension

It is not the first time that a senior Iranian official warns that diminishing water availability and changes in climate could strain Iran’s relations with its neighbors. Last July, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused regional countries, particularly Turkey and Afghanistan, of aggravating environmental problems in Iran and the broader region by constructing major dams without prior consultation with the Islamic Republic. “The fact that our neighboring country is working on 22 dam projects could have very destructive implications on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. As a result, Iran, Iraq and many other countries can be impacted,” he said about Turkey during his speech at an international conference on tackling sandstorm held in Tehran. “One cannot remain indifferent to damaging consequences of this plan,” he stressed.

In addition to Turkey, Rouhani also pointed the finger at Afghanistan. “We cannot remain indifferent to what is damaging our environment. The construction of several dams in Afghanistan – the Kajaki, Kamal Khan and Selma dams and other dams in the north and south of Afghanistan – impacts our Khorasan and Sistan and Baluchestan provinces,” he warned.

According to Rouhani, 80 percent of Iran’s sandstorm problem originates outside Iran. “Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are among countries that are the source of dust and sand in our region that enter our country,” he added. “In this region, it is not possible to act in a way that one country can benefit from water resources and deprive other countries of them.”

Reactions from Iran’s neighbors

Both Turkey and Afghanistan reacted angrily to Rouhani’s statements. Fazli Corman, the director general for South Asian Affairs at the Turkish Foreign Ministry who attended the conference in Tehran, said his country began to build the dams after conducting thorough research and assessment. He emphasized that Ankara had no obligation to provide “any guarantees” to Tehran relating to its dam projects. “Does Iran consult and cooperate with other countries when it builds dams? Does it provide any guarantees?” he said. He also called on Tehran not to speak on Baghdad’s behalf and maintained that if Turkey and Iraq have any differences, the two countries will try to resolve it through bilateral negotiations.

Similarly, the Afghan government was also swift to respond to Rouhani’s remarks. Abdul Basir Azimi, the deputy minister of Afghanistan’s ministry of energy and water, rejected Rouhani’s allegations and emphasized that the Afghan government manages it water resources on the basis of the country’s national interests and international conventions. He added that Afghanistan’s economy is heavily reliant on agriculture and water management helps the country to boost its economy, reduce poppy cultivation and encourage Afghans not to leave the country. Azimi stressed that if Iran wants Afghanistan to be stable and prosperous it should not see construction of dams in Afghanistan as a threat and instead assist Kabul in such plans.

Afghan officials and media outlets often accuse Tehran of aiding the Taliban to obstruct the construction of water dams and ensure the free flow of Afghan water into Iran. According to Hayatullah Hayat, the governor of southern Helmand province, the IRGC has provided the Taliban with sophisticated weapons to disable some of the nation's dams so that Tehran could get a larger share of water from the Helmand River.

Jamila Amini, the head of the provincial council of Farah, an Afghan province bordering Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, said the IRGC had increased its support to Taliban fighters to prevent the construction of Bakhtabad dam in the province. Sistan and Baluchistan has been grappling with worsening water shortages and Iranian officials have recently stated that the work on the second phase of the British-built Kajaki dam in Helmand is “extraordinarily worrying to Iran” as well.

Likewise, the latest statement by Safavi drew reactions in the Arab media. Pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat wrote that the comments by Khamenei aide indicated that Iran might use water as a “weapon” to ensure its interests in neighboring countries.

Worsening environmental problems  

Rouhani’s remarks come as climate changes and the Iranian government’s wrong policies have depleted the country’s water resources and created serious environmental issues.  Last year, Rouhani had to travel to Khuzestan Province to calm growing public anger over sandstorms and power blackouts. Khuzestan – an oil-rich province which borders Iraq and has a majority Arab population – has long been ignored by the government in Tehran. And the government has done little to address the problem since then. A BBC Persian report earlier this month noted that air pollution in Khuzestan has reached “extremely dangerous” levels, causing temporary closure of schools and internal displacements. There have also been renewed antigovernment protests in the province. During his trip to Khuzestan days ago, Safavi warned that popular anger and internal security problems in Khuzestan and elsewhere in the country are more damaging to Iran’s national security than external threats. He noted that the province accounts for 70 percent of Iran’s oil resources and more than 30 percent of surface water as well as one-third of hydroelectric energy. Instead of offering a solution to the problem, Safavi called on the IRGC to take the lead in ensuring security and stability in the province.

Water and environmental problems were also among key reasons behind the latest antigovernment protests across Iran in December and early January. And in addition to protests, separatist groups have also claimed attacks in the province. Last December, Ansar al Furqan, a jihadist group based in Iran, claimed that it had targeted a pipeline in Khuzestan. The al Qaeda-linked group added that it has established a new unit dubbed Ahwaz Martyrs Brigade. Ahwaz (also spelled as Ahvaz) is the capital of Khuzestan.

While Iranian officials blame neighboring countries for Iran’s environmental problems, corruption and mismanagement within the Iranian government are equally to blame. Moreover, while the Iranian regime spends billions of dollars annually on defense and military programs as well as in foreign wars, it largely ignores serious environmental problems that directly affect the lives of the Iranian people on a daily basis.

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