IPCS Contested Waters Project

How Do US-Led Sanctions on Iran Harm Iraq’s Water Resources?

25 Jul, 2019    ·   5605

Pieter-Jan Dockx highlights the linkages between external pressure and transboundary food and water security in West Asia

Pieter-jan Dockx
Pieter-jan Dockx
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)

In 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Since then, there has been a renewed interest in the sanctions’ ramifications for neighbouring countries like Iraq. The most recent example of this has been the idea of Iraq becoming a battlefield in a possible military confrontation between the US and Iran. The Iraqi government also relies on US sanctions waivers to continue purchasing Iranian electricity and gas; imports necessary to meet the country’s electricity consumption. Sanctions have also made Iraq more important as an export market for Tehran, arguably hampering domestic production.

However, while linkages of this nature are well-established, the negative impact that sanctions on Iran have on Iraq’s water resources remains underexplored. US pressure has reinforced the importance of food self-sufficiency as a primary policy objective for Tehran. This policy has, in turn, led to the overexploitation of the country’s water resources. Owing to various transboundary rivers flowing from Iran into Iraq, the adverse effects of these sanctions-related policies have also been felt in Iraq.  

Food Self-Sufficiency

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been the target of US(-led) pressure and sanctions, steering the country’s leadership towards food self-sufficiency. While food security has always been a primary objective in post-79 Iran, it was never fully achieved. For example, while the domestic production of wheat, a staple in Iran, increased; imports mostly outpaced domestic output. This changed during the presidency of Barack Obama, when food self-sufficiency gained in strategic importance in Iran—highlighting the link between external pressure and food security. Starting in 2010, the then US president expanded existing sanctions by targeting Iran’s energy sector, and by garnering support for his policy from the EU, Russia, and China.

As a response to this increased pressure, Tehran launched its ‘resistance economy’ policy aimed at offsetting the sanctions’ economic consequences and preserving its political independence. One of the main goals of the doctrine has been achieving self-sufficiency in agriculture and food production. Under President Rouhani, Iran has subsequently become self-sufficient in wheat, and has even started exporting the strategic crop. It is to be noted that the sanctions and embargoes have seldom targeted food imports directly. However, restrictions on, for example, financial transactions with Iran have indirectly obstructed food imports—justifying this inclination towards self-sufficiency.

Water Consumption

The policies to stimulate agriculture that have followed from this focus on food security have, in turn, drained Iran’s water resources. Agriculture is generally the main driver behind freshwater consumption, especially so in Iran. While agriculture accounts for around 70 per cent of freshwater withdrawals globally, and approximately 84 per cent in West Asia; in Iran this number rises to an average of 92 per cent.

Sanctions have not only induced this overuse indirectly through the promotion of agriculture, but have also had a direct impact. By limiting the country’s access to international technology markets, sanctions have contributed to the sector’s low water productivity—increasing the amount of water necessary to meet production targets. To secure the volume of water required for irrigation, Tehran has mainly focused on the construction of dams and other infrastructure, like inter-basin water transfer projects.

Impact on Iraq

The upstream presence of dams, transfer projects, and agriculture on the Iranian side of the shared river basins with Iraq have harmed both the quantity and quality of the latter’s water resources. Since Iran’s provinces near the Iraqi border are important agricultural areas, it has led to the exploitation of transboundary rivers for irrigation purposes. Dams have been erected on tributaries to the Tigris like the Daryan Dam on the Sirwan (Diyala) River, and the Silveh Dam in the Little Zab Basin. Further south, the Karkheh and Karun River, which flow into the Shatt al-Arab, have been subjected to similar infrastructure development.

Additionally, Tehran has also constructed inter-basin transfer projects to transfer water from, in this case, transboundary waters to other agricultural regions. For example, water from the Karun River is being diverted to support agriculture in the centrally located Zayandeh River Basin. These upstream activities have not only reduced the respective rivers’ discharge but have also adversely affected its quality. Agricultural runoff has, for example, polluted the water remaining in the Karun river.

Finally, the reduction in the quantity and quality of water flowing into Iraq has contributed to, if not caused, several economic and political issues in the country. Iraqi farmers dependent on the transboundary rivers have been faced with lesser quality produce or have had to abandon their land—impacting local livelihoods and agricultural production. In the border province of Basra, competition over scarce water resources has already prompted violent clashes between tribes. Basrawis have also protested against water shortages and the high salinity of the water. Furthermore, water entering Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran has instigated the region’s government to reduce the flow to the rest of Iraq. This has led to tension between the regional and central government.


All these various water-related economic and political problems can, in varying degrees, be traced back to the sanctions and embargoes imposed on Iran. Restrictions to the country’s international trade have encouraged a policy of maximising self-sufficiency in basic goods like food products—essential to regime survival and independence. Water from the countries’ shared rivers has subsequently been utilised to facilitate this expanding agricultural activity, negatively impacting Iraq. While officials from both countries have often pointed at the effects of climatological conditions with regard to cross-border water issues, anthropogenic pressures upstream should not be ignored. A sustainable long-term solution to the US’ ‘Iran problem’ would benefit not only Iran’s but also Iraq’s water resources.


Pieter Jan-Dockx is a non-resident consultant with the IPCS Contested Waters Project.