A new round of disagreements between Iran and Turkey began when Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian criticized Turkey’s dam projects on the Aras and Tigris rivers –– the main transboundary waterways in the region –– citing the threats to water flow in the area and environmental damage to regional states in his speech before Iran’s Parliament on May 10. Abdollahian said he has called on “his Turkish counterpart at least three times over the past months to pay serious attention to the construction of dams on the Aras River.”
Iran’s reaction to the dam construction on the Aras River is more than a simple diplomatic dispute.
Yet, Iran’s reaction to the dam construction on the Aras River is more than a simple diplomatic dispute between neighbors: Tehran views the problem from a national security perspective. The Aras River originates in eastern Turkey and flows eastwards, crossing several countries including Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia before joining the Kura River in Azerbaijan.
Turkey has been investing in dam projects in its eastern parts (on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) within the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) framework to produce more energy and jobs. As of today, there are reportedly 22 hydroelectric dams in Turkey. However, dam projects have triggered discontent in regional states like Iran, Iraq, and Syria over the last several years. In 2019, environmental activists reported that Turkey’s dam projects on the Tigris River would cause water shortages in Iraq, as 70 percent of Iraq’s water supplies flow via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which run through Turkish territories.
A diplomatic standoff arose among Iran, Iraq, and Turkey over the Ilisu Dam, which was inaugurated in 2021by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s southeastern province Mardin. With a total water storage volume of 11 billion cubic meters, the new dam can generate 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity. Tehran is holding Ankara accountable for the severe droughts in Iran that caused heavy dust storms and led to deadly mass riots in several Iranian cities. Although the construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates has an impact on waterfalls, the ruling establishments’ mismanagement of water resources in Iran and Iraq cannot be ignored. As for Iran, the transfer of water from relatively water-rich areas to regions suffering water shortages and also the locus of major industries simply drained the existing underground reserves and further worsened the situation.
Turkey appears to be reluctant to stop its dam construction in the transboundary waters. Dam projects help Turkey to increase its water reserves above normal amid the global water shortage problem. Iran’s accusations of Turkey restricting its water supply amid its severe economic and political instability likely has little impact on Ankara’s water policy, though it impacts Tehran-Ankara cooperation. Moreover, Iraq –– the only regional country that is suffering severe water shortages due to dams constructed by Turkey and Iran over transboundary waters –– has long been attempting to reach an agreement with Turkey to address various aspects of the water issue, including desertification, dust and sandstorms, and measurement methods.
Tehran is attempting to find a new scapegoat to explain its drought problems.
Amid the ongoing mass riots within Iran, explicit water shortages, and political instability, it should come to no surprise that Tehran is attempting to find a new scapegoat to explain its drought problems. Although Iran mainly criticizes Turkey for its water management policy and its growing number of dams, it was Iran’s construction of dams near the Iraqi border that caused a significant drop in the flow of water from the Karkheh River into Iraq. Moreover, Baghdad is accusing Iran of diverting tributaries of the Tigris and Little Zab rivers. Because Iranian authorities view diversion of waters from the Little Zab, and Sirwan rivers as critical to revivingthe Urmia Lake, which has significantly dropped the water level on the Iraqi side. Nevertheless, Tehran is blaming Turkey for the droughts in Iran, Iraq, and Syria portraying it as a “conspiracy theory” against Iran itself orchestrated by Ankara.
Iran inaugurated 647 dams in 2018, 40 more dams in 2020, and vowed to cut the ribbon on 156 new dams in 2021, but it still claims that Turkey’s massive dam construction poses an explicit threat to the region’s stability. On the contrary, the bloody protests in Iran in 2019-2020 and the 2021 protests over water shortages and electricity blackouts all over the country were caused mainly by the current Iranian administration’s dam construction in big provinces like Khuzestan and its inability to adopt an effective water management strategy, along with a lack of agricultural planning.
The relationship between Turkey and Iran has had many rifts over a myriad of issues.
The relationship between Turkey and Iran has had many rifts over a myriad of issues caused mainly by the race for regional influence in Syria, Iraq, and to some extent, the Gulf region. Iran is not hiding its discontent with Turkey’s growing military activities in the region, particularly regarding Turkey’s recent counter-terrorism operation in Iraq’s Sinjar province. However, unlike their standard geopolitical rivalry, the current water resources dispute will pose a serious problem for the uneasy bilateral relations of the two neighboring countries for the foreseeable future.