Last month, for example, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and a number of Iranian MPs blamed Ankara‘s ambitious dam construction projects for increasing drought in Iraq and Syria and more frequent dust storms in Iran, Turkey is demanding “Unacceptable.” For its part, Turkey dismissed the Iranian claims as unscientific and instead accused Iranian politicians of attempting to scapegoat Turkey in order to divert public attention from the regime’s dire mismanagement of the country’s water resources.
At the heart of the problem is Turkey‘s multi-billion dollar project in Southeastern Anatolia that has been in the works for the past five decades. The project, led by the government’s state water company, includes 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which have caused severe drought across much of Syria and Iraq. Viewed from Tehran, however, it is the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River that poses the most acute environmental threat to the resource-rich but severely impoverished southern and western provinces. According to Iranian officials, the recent increase in dust storms in these regions is a direct result of reduced water flows in the Tigris and subsequent droughts in Iraq caused by the Ilisu Dam.
Though Turkey and Iran hold regular meetings to jointly monitor water flow from the former to the latter, a practice that has roots in their 1955 bilateral agreement, one should weigh the likelihood of an ongoing row between the two regional heavyweights over it Don’t ignore the water issue in the years to come. Of paramount importance is the fact that the interests of four sovereign nations are at stake and therefore bilateral agreements will be of limited use. This issue becomes even more pressing as Turkey, unlike the other three countries, has not signed the 1997 New York Convention on the Use of Transboundary Waters Away from Navigation, meaning there is no basis for developing a multilateral approach.
Even if Ankara were bound by an international convention, it is far from clear how successful Tehran would be in garnering support for its position, given its status as a pariah on the global stage. Iraq and Syria are also unable to put significant pressure on Turkey to address concerns about its aggressive dam-building projects and broader approach to water management. The Syrian government is still preoccupied with the ongoing civil war and political instability in Iraq and Turkey‘Baghdad’s own influence in some of the country’s political constituencies severely limits Baghdad’s ability to demand policy changes from Ankara. In fact, some Iranian analysts argue that Turkey exploited Iraq‘s weakness in recent years by accelerating its dam-building efforts, knowing full well that the Baghdad government cannot challenge Ankara so long as it is occupied with recurring rounds of political crises and turmoil.
Taken together, all of this leaves Iran with no choice but to expand its bilateral deals with Turkey while taking the lead in developing a joint approach with Iraq and Syria to put collective pressure on Turkey. Sure, there’s ample reason for the trio to pursue such an initiative. Dust storms endanger public health and require complete shutdowns of cities and businesses, hampering economic productivity, while droughts directly limit crop production, negatively impact the agricultural sector and weaken food security.
If the three countries undertake these efforts, however, they are likely to become caught up in the broader dynamics of strategic Iran-Turkey competition in the region. This, in turn, will only complicate an already complex and dire situation. A look at the water management dossiers of Iran and Turkey shows that their views on water resources are full of realpolitik language. They view their ability to control the flow of water as an instrument of power and influence – one that can complement their grand strategies to become the leading player in their neighborhood. As such, Iran’s attempts to build an alliance will almost certainly be perceived as an opportunistic endeavor aimed at clipping Turkey’s wings and reducing its influence in the region.
Some Turkish analysts have already linked the water dispute to a rising influx of Afghan refugees and have accused Tehran of trying to arm immigration to extort concessions from Ankara. Turkey is also likely to highlight Iran‘its own dam construction as the cause of the drought, to cast doubt on the sincerity of Tehran’s claims that it is seeking a win-win outcome for all parties. This would be particularly easy in Iraq, as both Baghdad and Erbil have already filed numerous complaints about Iran’s efforts to divert tributaries of the Tigris at their expense.
As Iraq and Iran prepare for another week of dust storms, rest assured that the issue of transboundary water management will dominate Iran-Turkey relations for years to come. While the two states are likely to continue bilateral efforts and broaden the mandates of their established working groups, it is by no means certain that these efforts will yield any meaningful outcome when it comes to addressing the root causes of the dispute. This will require inviting Iraq and Syria to participate, but so far there is no sign of anything moving in that direction. More importantly, Ankara and Tehran must choose responsible statecraft and avoid making emotional or rhetorical statements. Unfortunately, there seems to be little appetite for pragmatism at the moment, as populist policies are benefiting the two governments and helping to stoke nationalist sentiments and distract public opinion from the deteriorating economies in both countries. For Turkey‘This would prove particularly useful for the ruling party in an election year.
For its part, the United States government must pay close attention to the ongoing Iranian-Turkish infighting and use it as an opportunity to develop and refine its approach to the nexus between climate change and regional security in the Middle East. At the bureaucratic level, the State and Defense Departments must establish a task force embedded in the US embassies tasked with outreach and working with local and regional stakeholders to develop relevant frameworks to prevent disputes and water resources national and regional manage levels. To this end, it is advisable to be aware of the importance of water management as a means of working directly with Tehran outside the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The US government must also work with its allies and partners to establish regional bodies that can serve as a forum for discussing environmental issues to prevent a country from using water as a weapon. This will not be easy, but failure will certainly cost the US more. According to the latest report from the National Intelligence Council, water shortages and environmental crises are likely to lead to armed conflict in the Middle East, frustrating the US‘s aim to reduce its military footprint in the region.
Equally significantly, failure could also cost the United States much strategic, diplomatic, and commercial clout in the region, as Beijing may very well seek to fill the leadership vacuum. Speculation has been rife that China is exploring the idea of establishing a collective governing body in the Horn of Africa, which aims, among other things, to create a place for collective deliberations on the political and economic implications of an environmental crisis, such as increasing drought and water shortages. Beijing could certainly do something similar in the Middle East. But especially Washington‘Indifference to the looming environmental crisis in the Middle East could have serious implications for technological rivalry with China. Technologies such as AI and intelligent infrastructure will play a key role in shaping states’ understanding of climate change impacts and preventative efforts, and thus passive engagement with regional actors could further advance China‘s status as a region‘s leading technology supplier and preferred partner.
Nima Khorrami is a research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and at the Arctic Institute in Washington, DC.
Photo by MORTEZA JABERIAN/AFP via Getty Images
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