Water wars: Iran plays access to force compliance

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Catherine Perez-Shakdam is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

In its grand pursuit of control and ideological dominance, it looks as though the Islamic Republic of Iran is willing to commit the abominable. And their current weapon of choice? Water.

Located on the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent, a historically verdant region stretching across the Middle East, the southwestern province of Khuzestan — or Ahwaz as locals prefer to call it — has been reduced to a desert. Where rivers once ran wild and abundant, irrigating fields of wheat, corn and rice stretching as far as the eye could see, riverbeds now stand barren. But the region’s riches aren’t limited to its vast arable lands and waterways, it also accounts for 16 percent of Iran’s GDP — second only to Tehran’s province — and is also home to 90 percent of the country’s oil resources, as well as 20 percent of its gas reserves.

Here, the proverbial writing has been plastered on every wall for some time now. With its majority Sunni Arab population, Khuzestan, which happens to share a border with both Iraq and Kuwait, has always been viewed with much distrust by Tehran — an enemy to be placated and, if not, displaced beyond the country’s borders, so that its Shia identity suffers no contention. And now, Iran’s agenda for the region is coming into focus.

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To put it plainly, Iran is expropriating its own nationals by playing the water access card. Since Ahwaz’s landowners refused to lease their lands to the state, so that it could claim more oil and gas for its coffers and better requisition its riches, Tehran is quite simply opting to drive them out, using thirst as a powerful incentive and seizing large swathes of land. And given the implications of this strategy, its time the West starts paying attention.

By rerouting much of the region’s water resources, and feigning mismanagement, the state has essentially engineered an exodus, forcing tens of thousands to abandon their homes and fields — which have now been rendered worthless — all so it can requisition and subcontract them to its main economic partner: China.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Iran, we have long been told, suffers from severe water mismanagement. And for several years now, experts have warned against both Tehran’s apathy and its officials’ propensity toward pursuing unsustainable water policies, pushing the nation ever closer toward an environmental precipice.

A view of a bridge and beneath the remains of Lake Hamrin in Iraq’s Diyala province | Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

Iran is endangering the water security and access of millions of its own people, and has done so wittingly, with complete disregard for the welfare of its compatriots. The regime, as it were, is instead catering to grander ambitions, which solely exist within the optics of its theopolitical ideology. And we, the West, ought to come to terms with that.

Iran is running geopolitical circles around us, and more often than not, distracting Western capitals from their real goals and projects, having them fuss over points of diplomacy instead. The incessant back-and-forth surrounding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — a deal that imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions — is a perfect example of this. Whether or not Tehran will return to the negotiating table matters little when we know not what the Ayatollahs have been up to as of late.

Since the West already appears to have become pawns in Russia’s energy bargain, getting a grip on yet another threat against our strategic interests is an absolute necessity. After all, in the hands of despots, water could become a most potent weapon of mass destabilization.

For two decades now — since right around the time the United States decided to dethrone Saddam Hussein — Iran has seen an opportunity it could exploit, playing its newfound closeness to Baghdad as a tactical advantage. By virtue of geography, and the flow of natural resources — oil and water — quite literally, the two countries share common strategic interests. They are the guardians of a fragile ecosystem, which requires a common vision to guarantee sustainability — only, Tehran is in the business of engineered subservience.

In Iraq’s water dependence, Iran saw an opportunity it could exploit for regional dominance , a principle it has since been keen to replicate, so it could exert power well outside its borders.

The core logic is quite simple: divert and/or restrict water in order to control migration and the political future of any given community, country or even region; and, if need be, threaten to unleash its huddled masses.

With millions at risk of displacement, one must ask what such migratory movements could equate to if they were to spill onto neighboring nations— or better yet, if the experiment of water control and rerouting could be replicated elsewhere to leverage power against other nations.

All this suddenly brings Iran’s recent activities in the Horn of Africa under a brand new light — which should concern us greatly — as water games in Ethiopia, the birthplace of the river Nile, could have devastating consequences for both Sudan and Egypt, prompting an exodus toward Europe and its neighboring regions.

While migratory movements have proven to be vastly beneficial, spearheading growth and innovation, unfettered mass migration is inherently dangerous and could lead to violent clashes, with communities fighting over dwindling resources, putting world security at great risk.

Does anyone still believe Iran wants to play nice?